A Tale of Two Palates: Sara Waxman and Adam Waxman dine-out in Toronto’s restaurant scene and share their views.
Yes, it is a chain, but one that has seriously pushed chefs and restaurateurs to elevate their dining experience with creative menus, responsible and ethical dining concepts and service. When celebrated Chef Rob Feenie joined the Cactus Club Café in Vancouver, we took notice. Now he has exploded onto Toronto’s downtown dining out scene. From Day One it has been a going concern. Even it’s long construction generated buzz.
Sara Waxman: Enter the front patio and outdoor fireplace of The Cactus Club and head to the glass elevator. We pass two dining floors where the action sizzles; the laughter is contagious; and the cocktails are shaken not stirred. Uh oh. Are we dining amidst all this high-energy decibel level? To our surprise and delight we’re taken to another section on the second floor with comfy padded booths–the quiet section for people who want to enjoy good food and good conversation. Afterwards if we want to go into the bar for a livelier end to our dinner, it’s available. This was by design, and carefully thought out by restaurateurs who care about the needs of their clientele.
Adam Waxman: This is immediately distinct. It’s not a Toronto based company. It’s the Vancouver vibe: a different aesthetic; a different dynamic; it’s more open than usual, and it’s one of those places that make you forget what town you’re in.
There are quite a few options in addition to the dining room where we’re sitting. The rooftop, equipped with kitchen and DJ, has the largest retractable roof of its kind in North America, which allows their patio to be open all year round. I think it’s very cool.
SW: Our server is attentive. I also like that we can trust the quality of the menu. Kudos to the Chef! It’s all free run, grain fed, ocean wise™ and ethical. They support informed dining. The seasonal menu is similar to Vancouver’s Coal Harbour location, but there are also items specific to Toronto like the duck confit, the beef duo, the sable fish and the short rib pappardelle. My martini is a full martini—it is not a half martini in a martini glass, it’s what this glass was meant for.
AW: Not the usual suspects on this wine menu. And there are so many by-the-glass options, so we can experiment. I’m interested in the Tanat from Uruguay and the Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley. There are suggested pairings for the menu, and I am happy to follow them.SW: We begin with the Tuna Stack of ocean wise albacore tuna, citrus tamari vinaigrette, nori, sesame, avocado, micro cilantro, and crisp and crackly in-house-made wonton chips. Very flavourful, fresh, light and crunchy. I can taste each ingredient from basil to mandarin orange.
AW: Ravioli of butternut squash and mascarpone are crowned with plump prawns and crispy sage, and luxuriate in rich truffle butter and pine nuts. This dish is for those who appreciate texture. It’s like squash velvet. It marries perfectly to a crisp glass of Chablis.
Apparently one of the stars on the menu is the barbecued duck clubhouse—regulars come here for lunch just to order it. Our waitress is not bashful in her praise of it, so I’m going to give it a taste. The suggested pairing is a Gamay Noir from Malivoire: a delicious ruby-coloured wine with sweet bright tannins of ripe berries, notes of violet, and a hint of cassis at the end. Enter the clubhouse… Our waitress returns and, oh my god, this is the very definition of a sexy sandwich! Thickly sliced Peking duck intermixed with crisp prosciutto di Modena and meaty roasted chicken lay between the sheets of artisanal toasted pecan and fruit bread with a delectable and savoury crunch.
SW: Well… I can’t eat the bacon so I’m going to steal your fries. These sea-salted yam fries are not wilted or over-cooked. They’re actually the best yam fries I have ever had. I have never been successful at making them like this. Crisp and good, I could order just this with the garlic aioli and be very happy. Everything here is so flavourful.
This menu is not a clone of other Toronto menus. Look at this gorgeous presentation of line-caught lingcod that would thrill any fish lover and convert any skeptic. Pan roasted to a golden sear in a stainless steal platter filled with beautiful mushrooms, brioche croutons, pearl onions, and rich truffle butter that I want to scoop up. It’s a really thick cut and a very tasty balance of textures.
AW: It’s perfectly prepared—neither oily nor dry—and a very substantial portion presented beautifully. The sauce around the fish is so full of flavour and it enhances the fish without being overpowering. The Chenin Blanc is a lovely pairing, because it provides the right acidity to cut the creaminess of the truffle butter.
SW: To beef or not to beef? That is the question. The answer is Feenie’s duo of roasted beef tenderloin and braised short rib. The accompanying pavé potatoes are like scallop potatoes gone to beauty school. The celeriac puree is the perfect foil to the richness of the beef and ties the dish together. I prefer the short rib, slow cooked to affectionate tenderness.
AW: I prefer the tenderloin. It cuts like butter. This Zinfandel has plum-y depth, but its peppery notes are little too overpowering for this beef. Perhaps there was a heavy handed sprinkle of salt on the tenderloin, and that also affected the pairing, but I’m a beef lover and this is a really good quality cut of Canada Beef. It contrasts well with the sweetness of the celeriac puree. The asparagus tips are fresh and firm. I’m eating up every bite.SW: There are multi-starred restaurants in this city whose offerings are not as refined and delicious as the dishes we’re eating here tonight. I think we have to order dessert. The Key Lime Pie is simply wonderful. It’s better than in Key West. Rich luscious pie with a graham cracker crunch and hand whipped cream. If you like Key Lime Pie, come here.
AW: I think the spoon is my favourite utensil. I love scooping dessert. A spoonful of creamy chocolate mouse with caramel foam and sponge toffee is lush and enveloping. A loving spoonful of Key Lime Pie ignites my taste buds. And each decadent spoon of the chocolate peanut butter crunch bar ensures this palate igniting meal does not end with a whimper, but with a wow.
Cactus Club Café
77 Adelaide Street West, 647-748-2025
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Associate Publisher and Executive Editor of DINE and Destinations magazine.