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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Pretty But Prickly

Noelle Chorney
Published Thursday October 1, 06:13 pm
Cactus Club is pretty good, for a chain

140 Idylwyld Dr. N

I suppose it’s a good thing that Saskatoon is attracting more high-end dining chains. It means on some level we’re reaching a critical mass that outside investors consider attractive. But I still have a healthy level of skepticism about whether it’s a good thing that these chains have some of the longest lineups in the city.

I used to live in Vancouver, and when I was there, I ate at the Cactus Club exactly once, which was enough for me to realize that there were thousands of other places that served better food. For me, the pretty waitresses in tight black tops and short black skirts just weren’t enough of a draw.

Then the news broke that Rob Feenie, godfather of Lumiére (I only ate there once, but it was memorable) and Food Network star, had been hired to give Cactus Club’s menu an overhaul. That sounded sounded promising.

So I did have to check out Cactus Club when it came to Saskatoon. I admit to having an uncomfortable moment when I realized how awesome it felt to be surrounded by clean, modern design in a relatively large restaurant that could have been anywhere in the world. I love my city, its character and all the small businesses that make it what it is, but if I’m really honest with myself, my first trip to the Cactus Club felt like I went on a holiday without leaving town. And I appreciated the professional service. And there was lots on the menu that sounded appetizing.

But it’s a chain, people! The menu is set in another city, and the meals aren’t cooked so much as assembled in their kitchen! This is the price you pay for consistency across dozens of restaurants throughout western Canada.

Still, we line up — and follow the somewhat snarky rules that require those waiting for the lounge to stand in a line over here, while only people waiting for a table in the restaurant can sit on the often-empty benches. Why do we do this?

Apparently the price of consistency is pretty high.

Here’s what I like about Cactus Club. I’ve been there for lunch many times. There are lots of items on the menu (particularly the ones with “RF” beside them, which indicates ‘developed by Rob Feenie’) that have flavours I love. The rocket salad, with parmesan-crusted crispy chicken breast, tomatoes and lemon caper dressing is less a salad and more a large serving of crispy fried chicken with rocket leaves piled on top, then covered in tomatoes, lemons and capers. I LOVE lemons and capers. This was a huge winner.

The butternut squash ravioli is super creamy and comforting, while the concept of barbecue duck or grilled tuna in a clubhouse sandwich is inspired. (It makes even me want to eat a sandwich, which almost never happens.) And the Baja fish tacos were Ocean Wise™ (which I care about), crispy and a much larger serving than I expected for a $14 lunch.

I also like the wine and cocktail selection: They have some excellent wines by the glass, many from Canada, no Apothic to be seen, and you can tell someone actually chose wines that would go with the food they serve. And you can choose between a whisky sour, a Negroni and a French 75. All the booze groups covered.

On the other hand, I don’t really like the fact that the menu is the same at lunch and dinner. It seems reasonably affordable at dinner, but much less so at lunchtime. $17 for a lunchtime salad, even one with a big paillard of chicken, seems excessive. As do $40 steaks. Maybe they’re amazing. I didn’t have one.

I did try the Cactus Club experience for dinner once, and it was a fun night. Our server was also friendly and earnest, and while we waited in line (and according to the rules) our hostess was communicative about when we could expect to be seated. Still, many people in front of us gave up and went elsewhere.

We had yummy drinks, and an excellent tuna tataki appetizer to share (seared tuna, served like sushi, on top of a delicious green papaya slaw, with garnishes of mango, avocado and fish roe). I ordered some excellent wine to go with my main course. (Kabinett Riesling, Fish Label goes great with spicy Asian food!)

For the main, I opted for a double-braised pineapple hoisin shortrib with mashed potatoes and snow peas. Others ordered spaghettini and Kobe-style meatballs, a great big burger, and Rob Feenie’s hunter chicken. Everyone quite effectively cleaned their plates and enjoyed their food. Mine was fine, although the “pineapple hoisin” sauce tasted remarkably like dressed-up ketchup. (I guess anything that tastes like ketchup is going to please most people, right?)

Our meals weren’t so large that we didn’t have room for dessert, so I tried their specialty — a peanut butter crunch bar, and my husband opted for key lime pie. I was super pleased with the peanut butter crunch bar and the decaf cappuccino I had with it. It was like eating a homemade Mr. Big chocolate bar, with ice cream on the side. Fun! The key lime pie was also declared a winner — nicely tart rather than overly sweet.

So there, I tried Cactus Club for dinner — and now I don’t have to go back. There was nothing wrong with the service or the meal, and it is kinda fun to be in a place that’s buzzing and full of people. But if I’m going spend over $100 on a date-night meal, now that I’ve had the Cactus Club version of Rob Feenie’s genius, I’d like to move on to a local place that has put some individual effort into developing the menu, not just cooking what they were told to.

Cactus Club is fine choice if you’re willing to wait in line and you want that “could be anywhere in the world” feel — they do a lot of stuff right for the size of chain that they are. But now I need to get back up on my soap box and encourage you to consider making a tougher and more adventurous choice once in a while. Next time, go out to a local restaurant and taste the local flavour. Your local economy, and your tastebuds, will thank you.

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