The Cactus Club – and The Succulent Sexton (Succulent also being a cacti term and sexton being a group of six people)

4.5/5 on the Foodie Foursome Index
4.1/5 on the Fancy/Hip Scale
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Mike and Jenna’s Review: 🎉🇨🇦💗🌵🎶
The year was 1996, the air was clean (not BC smoke filled), militant Taliban forces had captured Kabul, interest rates were higher, Spice girls had their first #1 “Wannabe”, and everyone was talking about if Ross and Rachel were truly on a ‘break’ and the possible stipulations. Somewhere, lost in all that breaking news, was the fact that and two former discouraged Early’ Waiters (it’s true, wiki it started the Cactus Club Café in Calgary.

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I am ashamed to admit that I grouped the Cactus Club in with other big name franchises, but throughout the evening I was told the story of the original Cacti Club in Vancouver, and it’s rise (and plans) throughout Canada. When we heard about the $500 taster menu for 6, the Dutchman in me cringed (I one time walked out of Opa empty handed because they tried charging me $1 for extra tzatziki), however I left feeling like I had experienced something truly special. The appetizers were without a doubt the most phenomenal I have tried yet and deserve to be mentioned,

  1. Salmon & Prawn Ceviche – often times in my experience the ceviche is modified to curtail to a more North American audience, this stuff could have held its own right in Lima, Peru!
  2. Tuna Tataki – I don’t even like tuna… until this day, nuff said,
  3. Beef Carpaccio – Cut so thin (via freezing) that it melts on the plate, the piece (you assume is solid) can literally be spread on your bread
  4. Butternut Squash Ravioli – This is the sauce that the first Canadian won Iron chef with… a must try

The main dishes were also delicious but the appetizers were really what blew me away. I feel, given the high score, that we should mention where the Cactus Club LOST points (as this is quicker than listing everything they nailed)… their ambiance and environment leaves something to be desired, it was somewhat loud and felt a little crammed. The food was of such caliber that it could be served in Buckingham Palace, but instead I was looking at two people fighting over a grocery cart in the Coop parking lot, fear not however, because they are opening up a Downtown location and we are curious to see the ambiance in the new place!

We all left changed people,

  1. Natalie didn’t like fish, Now she’s been banned from RedLobster for jumping in their fish tanks
  2. Meagan didn’t like wine, Now her cart at Coop Liquor looks like she is holding a party… she is not
  3. Mike didn’t like deserts, Now he weighs 300 pounds and starts the meals with it… like an animal
  4. Jenna didn’t like mushrooms, Now she is collecting maneur (of what species she declines to answer) to start a summer batch on her deck
  5. Sean didn’t like Mike, but now he tolerates him

Overall, I would say that growing up in Calgary I mistakenly thought of Cactus Club as a high class franchise (none are actually franchised). I spoke to Jenna about my reservations when she wanted to try the tasting menu; I ended up eating my words, and one of the best meals I ever had in Calgary.

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P.S. Saying it’s the best I ever had in Calgary and it not being a perfect 5/5 may lead people to question “what is a 5 outta 5?”, which I have added to the “about us” category so people know more about the rating system

Sean and Natalie’s Review: 
The whole experience at Cactus was a bit of a surprise. The low lighting, leather booths and r&b hits lull you into thinking you know what’s coming. This is going to be a pretty standard, big-chain restaurant meal. It’s a good thing Managers Graham and Andrea were there to school me otherwise. Turns out, Cactus – while still a chain – really gets food. Conversing with Julianne and Rob, our chefs for the evening, really helps you understand how proud the staff is of every individual location. You could focus on the menu designed by Rob Feenie of Iron Chef, but Rob himself influences the menu of his location. Working together like a jazz quartet Rob and Julianne began to serve us a 6 course meal while Graham and Andrea took care of all the wine pairings.

I had heard about the Ravioli, using the same truffle oil based sauce Feenie used on the show. The all-star for me, however, was the Beef Carpaccio. It was proportioned beautifully; the meat was perfect and went nicely with the Pierre Ponnelle Gamay Noir. Honorable mentions go to the ceviche and tuna tataki. We ended the evening with key lime pie, a dish I always pass over because of its very bright flavor. This one, however, was creamier than I am use to, which is a good thing!

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We didn’t dare talk during the Beef Carpaccio and Ravioli, that was just… yum. The mains were great, the chicken breast oh so tender but she started to get pretty full by the time the beef rib arrived.

All in all, this is a great activity for a small birthday or group special occasion. It wasn’t just dinner, it was an entire evening. Well worth it. The décor may make you feel like it’s a chain, but the individuality is all in the food. For us the opening acts sort of stole the show from the main events. But in the end we knew Rob had shown up and dropped the proverbial mic. Well done Rob, well done.

Anthony and Megan’s Review:
There was nothing prickly about the Cactus Club experience. From the first dish of Salmon & Prawn Ceviche to the final Key Lime classic pie finisher we were satiated with refreshing flavours to make any man trek the desert (or drive Macleod).   In a desolate landscape baron of fine dining, where stock standard eateries seem to be the best you can get, the location is a little isolated but in this case the service and menu proved to be no mirage, the kitchen genies materialized delicious dishes absolutely worth seeking out.

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The Tasting Menu we experienced comprised 7 dishes and 5 thoughtfully selected wine pairings which more than amply quenched the thirst of these dusty camels. This guided menu experience was to our eyes great value, at $500 for six people, inclusive of supreme quality food and generous quantities of wine. This sherpa led culinary quest involves the kitchen tailoring the menu when you book to what you are looking for in a dining experience. They bring a personal touch with the head chef and manager coming to your table to answer any questions about the food and explain something of the ingredients’ origins and the thought behind the design of the flavours and textures. The staff’s unbridled enthusiasm for their creations is infectious and genuinely endearing.   This truly enjoyable escapist adventure was reminiscent for us of our favourite dining experience thus far in Calgary at Rouge Restaurant in Inglewood, where Anthony and I booked a romantic evening before we left to get married back in Australia. Rouge, of course rises to meet the expectations its reputation creates with its tasting menu however surprisingly this was comparable to the quality and personal experience at Cactus Club, for a lesser price tag.

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Cactus Club is an unexpected oasis of fine dining in a seeming predictably common Canadian restaurant chain. Do yourself a great favour and let yourself be surprised… rub the genie’s lamp, try the tasting menu and let the kitchen mystics wow you with an unpretentious and yet richly enjoyable culinary experience. Cactus Club will grant far more than just 3 wishes, with 7 delightful dishes, you will be pleasantly surprised but only if you know where to go with their menu. Cactus Club can be as featureless as eternal sand dunes if you don’t know what to select from their expansive menu, trust me, get a guide, let them uncover an oasis in the desert and show you to Aladdin’s Cave of delectable wonders.

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