Cactus Club, the power lunch hot spot, takes Toronto

Cactus Club, the power lunch hot spot, takes Toronto

Three years after hanging up a sign at First Canadian Place, the Vancouver-based restaurant opened with a roar

(Image: Dave Gillespie)

Cactus Club Cafe ★★
77 Adelaide St. W., 647-748-2025
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I thought myself clever for getting there 20 minutes before noon. I’d heard tales about the new Cactus Club Cafe in First Canadian Place—how you’d have to wait in line forever if you couldn’t score one of the limited number of reservations available; how Bay Streeters were sending underlings to hold a spot. Lineups are my personal hell, and despite my early arrival there was a queue a dozen deep, mostly guys wearing pinstriped suits and sour expressions, furiously scrolling through emails to pass the time.

The Vancouver-based Cactus Club chain (29 locations and counting) didn’t choose First Canadian Place by accident. It’s a marquee location from which to launch a full-scale GTA invasion. Earls, the Keg and any restaurant connected to the Path should prepare for battle. The place suffers from gargantuanitis: 15,000 square feet over three levels. With 500 seats plus standing room at three bars, it’s one of the biggest restaurants downtown, and yet there’s always a line to get in. During lunch hour, there’s such pandemonium that hostesses issue instructions to one another over headsets, as deadly serious as stage managers at the Oscars.

Cactus Club Cafe The 15,000-square-foot Cactus Club at First Canadian Place has three distinct dining areas, including the third-floor patio with living walls and a fully retractable roof (Image: Dave Gillespie)

Cactus Club largely invented the “casual fine dining” category: sophisticated without being challenging, trendy yet not too trendy. There’s kale salad and Ocean Wise–approved seafood, but also chicken wings with creamy parmesan dip and AAA filet mignon. The please-everyone formula was a big hit with the wealthy expats and retirees who remade Vancouver into the northwestern equivalent of Palm Springs—where leisure is a daily occupation.

Richard Jaffray, the company’s 51-year-old founder and president, is among that breed of West Coast moguls who surf and gesture grandly. He sinks a fortune into each new Cactus Club—a rumoured $18 million on the Coal Harbour location beside Vancouver’s Winter Olympics cauldron—which confounds other restaurateurs, many of whom regard wobble-free tables as a luxury. I’ve visited the $18-million spot, and it’s one of the handsomest restaurants in the country, all burnished wood, dark leather and double-height window walls with a view of seaplanes landing in the harbour. The First Canadian Place reno was so ambitious, it delayed the opening by a couple of years. The biggest complication was the installation of a fully retractable roof over the entire top-floor patio. Jaffray spent close to half a million on the lighting alone—mid-century copper Artichoke lamps and Bocci pendant chandeliers (no replicas here). His personal collection of Warhols and the Warhol-imitator Mr. Brainwash hang from the walls.

Cactus Club Cafe Iron Chef Rob Feenie (Image: Dave Gillespie)

Surely, you must be thinking, some pricy decor and feel-good fish can’t be why we’re clamouring to get into this place. No, what sets Cactus Club apart from Earls and the Keg, the source of the hype, is its famous chef: Rob Feenie. Not just any old kitchen hand—the first in Canada to be crowned an Iron Chef (he beat Morimoto). Jaffray, in another grand gesture, scooped up Feenie as a menu consultant in 2008 when he was freshly fallen out with the investors behind his own two top-rated Vancouver restaurants (Lumière and Feenie’s). Feenie stayed and became executive chef, gamely grinning all over the company’s website and promo campaigns. He classes up the joint. Because of Feenie, the Vancouver flagships often make the city’s best-restaurant lists.

Cactus Club Cafe Barbecue Peking duck clubhouse sandwich (Image: Dave Gillespie)

Every Cactus Club menu is divided between dishes Feenie takes direct responsibility for, which are designated with an RF, and everything else. The Feenie dishes are often a few dollars more expensive and involve bling like grana padano, sustainably harvested prawns (when common shrimp won’t do) and truffle butter.

Cactus Club’s servers are especially keen to steer you to the RFs. On my lunch visit (after waiting a full hour and a half in line) I was accompanied by a lawyer friend who usually makes a point of studying online restaurant menus in advance as if preparing for the LSAT. Still, we dithered, unsure whether to share the steelhead trout and shrimp ceviche, which gets an RF, or the calamari, which doesn’t. Our server, who looked like Amanda Seyfried on amphetamines, told us there was no question we should get the ceviche, that it’s “one of Rob’s favourites.” At first I was flattered that she assumed we knew the Rob she was referring to, until I realized other servers also spoke fondly of “Rob” with customers at the surrounding tables. We got the RF ceviche, which was good for one prepared nowhere near a Mexican fishing village—the seafood fresh and lime-tart, the accompanying nachos plentiful (few places give you enough for scooping).

Cactus Club Cafe Butternut squash ravioli with jumbo prawns (Image: Dave Gillespie)

My friend ordered the RF-designated ravioli, which are stuffed with mascarpone and butternut squash, and made with truffle-heavy butter sauce (which I could still smell hours later). Feenie has been making this same ravioli for eons—his signature is to place a single poached prawn and a fried sage leaf atop each pocket—and I can’t argue with what works. The pasta had just enough bite, and the interior was silky-soft. I was in the mood for a burger, of which there are three options: the veggie, the beef and the Feenie Burger (RF). The latter two are made with Angus and come with bacon and cheddar. What’s the difference? I asked our Seyfried. She hesitated, unsure what to say when RF alone doesn’t do the trick. “It comes with mushrooms,” she admitted. I went for it. It’s a respectable moist and messy smash-patty burger.

Cactus Club’s servers are practiced in the art of harmless flirtation. They wear clingy black dresses and teeter beside your table in spiky heels, Pantene curtains of shoulder-length hair framing their heart-shaped faces as they bend forward to ask how the “first bites are treating you” (a phrase I heard so often it must be in the staff handbook). I watched gangs of single-for-the-night traders ask servers personal questions that bordered on creepy. Cactus Club is in an unofficial competition with Earls for the hottest girls—casual fine dining servers, it seems, are the new flight attendants.

Cactus Club Cafe (Image: Dave Gillespie)

For the full Feenie experience, you must attempt to reserve a table on the second floor (home to those Warhols) in what’s called the Rob Feenie Dining Room. One night I stopped in with my husband for dinner, and the servers seemed even more attentive, if that’s possible, swinging by like clockwork with fresh drinks and more inquiries about first bites. The very first weren’t great. An appetizer of Sichuan chicken (RF), despite a blob of chili sauce, was as mild as food court renditions, and the iceberg lettuce for wrapping it was soggy. The battered lingcod in a foursome of fish tacos (also RF) was piping hot from the fryer and flaky, but the tortilla itself was fridge-cold and unremarkable. Only in the Rob Feenie Dining Room do you get a supplemental menu with a handful of entrées Feenie created strictly for the First Canadian Place location. We went for the beef duo—tenderloin in a glossy port jus and a beautiful hunk of short rib, with a potato pavé—and yet more lingcod, in this case roasted with pearl onions, and shiitake and oyster mushrooms, then laced with truffle. Both were flawlessly prepared and prettily presented (the fish like a prized catch in a polished steel roasting pan), and a fine reward after a long week at the money mill—but nothing about them was adventurous or screamed 2016. Like Feenie’s squash ravioli, they’re throwbacks to his pre–Cactus Club heyday. Cactus Club, minus all the hype and the star-chef branding, can be quite ordinary.

As I forked my last shred of short rib, the great man himself emerged from the kitchen and made a tour of the room. When he stopped at our table, he didn’t bother with introductions, and instead launched into a hard-to-follow story about the difficulty of sourcing fish and how he’d originally wanted something other than lingcod, though it had the advantage of being line-caught, or something to that effect. I never know what to say when chefs come to my table—part fear of being found out as a food critic, mostly innate awkwardness—and just nodded dopily and smiled. He looked momentarily puzzled, like he was waiting for us to ask about Morimoto or to have our photos taken with him (other tables did). He quickly moved on to a booth full of suits. They whooped and raised their glasses—a proper Iron Chef welcome.