It was a regular Wednesday night in Edmonton, and I was about to see just how much fun free food and wine can be. As my friend Susan and I walked in the front doors of the new Cactus Club Cafe, two glamorous-looking women greeted us warmly, and we were ushered into the large lounge area of the restaurant. We settled into tall chairs at one of the round tables around the bar and giggled to each other.
“We are so not hip enough to be here right now,” I said.
Waitresses walked the floor with trays of red wine, white wine, and Heineken. The booths and tables were starting to fill up. People were happily chatting with each other, and there was excitement in the air.
I had scored an invitation to the preview reception at the Cactus Club because of a story I did when chef Rob Feenie visited the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) back in February. After spending about three minutes interviewing him, I had somehow ended up on a mailing list. I wasn’t complaining. But I felt young and naive sitting there among people who were probably much more important than me. I tried to pretend this wasn’t my first opening reception.
I felt better when plates of food started coming out from the kitchen. I hadn’t been sure what to expect at this reception, but it turned out we had a full 8-course sit-down dinner ahead of us. The first course was beef carpaccio – super-thin slices of raw, marbled beef criss-crossed with stripes of dijon aioli and sprinkled with capers, pickled shallots, and flakes of parmesan. A small mound of greens (maybe arugula?) sat in the middle of the plate. It was a divine combination. I’ve never eaten raw beef before, but I fell for this version fast. The meat was soft, tender, and mild. I tried to figure out what it tasted like, but I couldn’t discern much actual flavour. But the sharp tang of the shallots, the spice of the mustard, and the salty parmesan hit my tongue. We piled the delicate beef on slices of garlic crostini and tried not to eat too fast, or too much. We had a hunch there was a lot more coming.
As the light slowly fell outside the tall windows of the restaurant, empty plates were whisked away and new ones arrived. Our wine glasses were filled, and refilled. A colleague of mine arrived with her husband and they joined our table. It was festive atmosphere. I think we all felt lucky to be there.
I tried many foods during the meal that I had never tasted before. My favourite new dish was the tuna tataki. Triangles of raw tuna lay on top of julienned carrots and green papaya, cubes of avocado and mango, dots of orange caviar, a few pine nuts, and a slice of orange, all resting in a citrus vinaigrette. Eating that made me think there must be no better accompaniment to raw tuna than citrus. The fish was soft but firm. It tasted clean and fresh, and as I ate it I thought of the sea.
There were other surprises – the beautiful texture of the single piece of sablefish floating in a dashi broth with potatoes and asparagus – it has been cooked gently and was almost partly raw. The texture of silky squash inside fresh ravioli. The sweet richness of a cube of short rib sitting in its own juices, and the frothy foaminess of pureed celeriac swirled beneath it. Finally, the thick complexity of a dab of caramel sauce complimenting the chocolate peanut butter crunch bar.
The only miss of the night for three out of four of us was the rocket salad, atop a panko-crusted chicken breast. Someone got carried away with the salt shaker in the kitchen, and I couldn’t finish it because of the overwhelming saltiness. The chicken also had very little flavour. Compared to the other dishes, it was especially disappointing.
What we ate is only a small fraction of the Cactus Club menu. Everything was from chef Rob Feenie’s feature dishes – they’re clearly marked with a little R.F. so that you know exactly whose food you are eating. The experience we had was clearly not the average one you would get during a normal meal. It was a luxury to be able to taste so many different things in small portions.
Somewhere between the second and third courses (… or fourth, I started to lose count), Mr. Iron Chef himself made an appearance. Feenie, in crisp chef’s whites, was chatting to a few people near our table. Susan was star-struck. Her brother Andrew is a chef and she starting texting him about where we were. “I am so jealous,” he wrote back. During the meal, she kept him updated about what we were eating. “Oh my God! I’ve been wanting to try his ravioli for years!” he wrote.
The service throughout the evening was excellent. The servers were friendly and knowledgeable, and requests for water and wine refills were met promptly. Of course, I’m sure it helped that the entire waitstaff was probably working that night.
The space we ate in was lovely and sophisticated, very open with high ceilings. The room is divided into the lounge area that surrounds the oval-shaped bar, and the restaurant area with lines of booths. At the back of the space is a long open kitchen. The whole place is dotted with interesting touches. Art on the walls ranges from Andy Warhol to an Alberta and a B.C. artist. A massive red lamp hangs in the hall near the kitchen, and the lights hanging throughout most of the restaurant are edgy and modern, like IKEA on steroids.
I realize this isn’t exactly normal for a restaurant review, but I also have to mention the bathrooms. They are probably the most decadent bathrooms I’ve seen in years – maybe ever. I shudder to think of the amount of money spent on them alone. Cream-coloured couches are available for your lounging pleasure, just in case you eat too much, and round, lit-up mirrors tell you “You’re Beautiful” in bold white text. To top it all off, on the back of each stall door is a small television screen. What was on TV the night we were there? A fashion show of twiggy models.
When we first sat down in the Cactus Club at the beginning of the night, my friend Susan said it reminded her of an Earl’s. I knew what she meant – the decor makes it feel like it’s trying to be a lot swankier than it actually is. Some of it may also have been the location, on the North side of the mall, next to Sears. It’s disconcerting to look out the window and see the Liquor Barn and a Boston Pizza staring back at you. But there is a whiff of sophistication surrounding it that you don’t get at Earl’s. And when the food starts coming out of the kitchen, it’s clear you are being taken care of by someone completely different.
I will definitely visit Cactus Club again, but I don’t know how soon I’ll be back, considering I have to take a 35-minute bus ride there and back. Clearly the restaurant is relying on mall foot-traffic and West End foodies to make up their clientele. I hope they can continue their standard of excellence in the kitchen and the dining room, and make a go of it in Edmonton. We keep hearing that people are choosing to stay home and entertain more these days. We’ll have to wait and see whether Feenie’s brand, and the allure of “casual fine dining”, can keep Cactus Club afloat.
When the long, luxurious meal was over, Susan and I walked through a chilly parking lot, waited in the dingy bus station, and rode the bus home. We were pushed firmly back into our normal lives, no longer special guests at a preview reception. But the warmth of good food, wine, and conversation lasted at least the whole bus ride home.
The bottle of wine they gave us as we were leaving definitely helped.
Cactus Club Cafe
West Edmonton Mall
1946-8882 170th Street NW