Cactus Club Cafe (Toronto)

Cactus Club Cafe

Let’s be honest, I didn’t have high hopes for Cactus Club Café. Undeniably, it’s because the restaurant is part of a chain and perhaps I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to chains – their food is safe but generally not exceptional.  Worse still, it’s hard to get reservations (they limit the number of tables daily) and there’s always a wait … time that comes between me and food is never good.

Nonetheless, my friends and I ventured into the pack on a weekday before the holidays in hopes of escaping the wait. Despite getting there just after 5pm, there was still a 20-minute queue – not bad compared to the hour long ones that is a regular occurrence during lunch and other nights.

Indeed, the restaurant is popular for after hour drinks; the 500-seater an ideal venue to accommodate large groups. The single serve bottle of a Cordorniu brut clasico cava ($12) helped to satisfy my recent infatuation with bubbles, the dry sparkling wine perfect for ringing in the holidays.

Chef Rob Feenie, best known for a win while competing on Iron Chef America, is all over the menu and specifically developed a “Toronto-inspired” one exclusive to the First Canadian Place location. The two dishes we ordered off the menu served only in the Rob Feenie dining room (how lucky we happen to be seated here), were both delicious… although it’s unclear how they’re connected to Toronto.

The duck confit ($26 with an extra $9 for a second leg) was succulent, pulling easily off the bone as anything poached in oil should. While the dish had a lot of flavour, the duck itself was left neutral so you could taste the fowl. Whereas, the complimentary ingredients originated the flavours: braised lentils mixed with pieces of salty smoked bacon and an aromatic truffle laced vinaigrette heightening the dish’s richness.

Sablefish ($34), which I recently discovered is another name for black cod, is my type of dish: a moist piece of firm marinated fish sitting in a fragrant Peking duck broth. Resting on a bed of shitake mushrooms, asparagus and fingerling potatoes, even without the fish this would work as soup or vegetarian entree.

Rest assured, even if you’re not in the Chef’s namesake dining room, his creations are all over the main menu – just look for a “RF” in a black circle beside the item.

I highly recommend the tuna stack ($16). Cool chunks of albacore tuna tossed with sesame oil, soy and ponzu. Sitting on cubed avocado and topped with tempura bits, daikon radish sprouts and micro cilantro, you can already imagine all the textures in the starter. Rather than use pieces of nori, Cactus Club provides an adequate number of fried wonton chips – large enough to hold the tuna without being messy.

On the restaurant’s website, their blog explains Feenie’s inspiration for creating the tuna stack. It was from meals spent with Japanese neighbours that he was introduced to the ingredients and influences his creations today. Certainly, it’s an appetizer that can be found at other restaurants, but Feenie’s recipe balances the variety of flavours and textures so nicely.   

Some will find the veal and porcini pappardelle ($23.50) too salty. Indeed, the pasta doesn’t lack flavour with the creamy porcini sauce and flecks of grana padano grated over top. The sauce coats every ribbon of perfectly al dante pasta and plenty of tender braised veal cheek is swirled into the dish. To cut through the pasta’s decadence, fresh arugula is loaded on top and works well as it’s mixed into the hot pasta and starts wilting.

Sadly, the Feenie magic didn’t continue with the desserts. The velvet underground ($3 per shot glass) was like eating syrup, sickeningly sweet with each layer: a caramel foam, crunchy sponge toffee and chocolate mousse. If only one ingredient was sweetened it’d be enough (likely the sponge toffee), I’d much rather have that with a bitter dark chocolate mousse and light vanilla cream.

Although tired and done, the white chocolate cheesecake ($8.25) was a better combination. The cheese cake was dense with the white chocolate peeking through. The bottom chocolate cookie crust a nice even layer and the raspberry sauce incorporating pieces of fruit throughout.

Given Cactus Club is a chain originating from the West, I hear it being compared to Earls – another restaurant popular with the Bay Street crowd. For me, the food is better and Cactus Club is best described as casual fine dining while Earl’s would be more upscale comfort food. It’s a slight but important difference – the dishes at Cactus Club don’t feel as mass produced and the atmosphere (despite being large) is sectioned into homelier rooms.  

A second location is set to open at Sherway Gardens in 2017 and I don’t doubt will be equally as popular. Only time will tell if Feenie will make another exclusive “Mississauga inspired” menu to this location. Too bad the second establishment will be too far away to alleviate the crowds of the downtown location. Such a pity, I guess a return visit will only materialize when I can score a reservation … likely a month in advance.  

Overall mark - 8.5 out of 10

How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 77 Adelaide Street West

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Gastro World's Grading System

  • Anything under 5 - I really disliked and will never go back
  • 6 - decent restaurant but I likely won't return
  • 7 - decent restaurant and I will likely return
  • 8 - great restaurant that I'd be happy to recommend
  • 9 - fantastic restaurant that I would love to visit regularly and highly recommend
  • 10 - absolute perfection!

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