Cactus Club Cafe English Bay
1790 Beach Ave., Vancouver
Prices: Appetizers, $7.50 to $14; sandwiches and burgers, $13.50
to $17.75; mains, $15.25 to $36.75
Cuisine: Casual Pacific Northwest
What comes to mind when you see a long lineup outside a restaurant? Me, I think of Pepto-Bismol and the horrible indigestion suffered after eating a $10 lamb shank at Vancouver's infamous Stepho's Greek Taverna. It kills the mood very quickly.
Then came the new Cactus Club Cafe in English Bay. On a warm summer evening, with sun glinting off this sleek rectangle of glass and sand kicked up into a dusty haze, the beachside lineup actually looks quite alluring.
Not alluring enough for an hour-long wait when the hostess won't take our names and we must stand in line to secure a place. Haven't the managers heard of wireless communication?
Actually, they have. But only on the upper, streetside entrance, where the wait is 30 minutes, the hostess provides us with a pager and we are welcome to go down to the lower-level bar to enjoy a drink until our table is ready – while watching the poor row of suckers outside.
I don't understand why the reception at the two doors differs so drastically. We didn't ask for patio seating at either. But until the restaurant introduces a pager-system downstairs or starts taking reservations (highly unlikely), I suggest you enter from the sidewalk, not the seawall.
And it is definitely worth the wait. What's 30 minutes in the scope of a century? That's pretty much how long it's been since the city began buying up all the downtown waterfront property and we have patiently held on to the hope of a great restaurant with a view.
Who would have guessed that it would come from Cactus Club, the locally owned chain that launched from a little North Vancouver bar strewn with peanut shells? Ah, perhaps it's because Cactus Restaurants Ltd. isn't so little any more. (This is its 22nd location.) And not all Cactus Club Cafes are created equally.
Cactus Club English Bay is certainly the jewel in the restaurant group's crown. Though the building's ambitiously green LEED-certified features (salvaged materials, hybrid-car parking, bike storage for employees, organic herb garden, blah, blah, blah) probably helped win the Vancouver Parks Board's approval, it's the panoramic view of blue ocean rippling out to the green mountains that everyone's here for. Don't worry about the patio. Every single seat in this glass-and-wood-wrapped longhouse offers a spectacular vista.
Save for the overanxious hostess on the lower level (who actually stretched out her arms to block us from entering the bar), most of the servers hit above the bottle-blonde Cactus Club stereotype. They know their kimchi from their yuzu, understand the menu inside out and can confidently recommend a dry Argentine torrontes when we detect too much sulphur in a local pinot gris.
They've obviously been trained by Sebastien Le Goff, one of the best in the business. The decorated sommelier was scooped up as the Cactus Club's new service director after a short stint in Singapore, where he was the opening general manager at Daniel Boulud's DB Bistro Moderne. Much like the company's headline-grabbing hiring of Iron Chef Rob Feenie, with whom Mr. Le Goff worked at Lumière, it was a huge score.
In addition to his expert training, Mr. Le Goff has introduced a site-specific wine list to the new restaurant. Sure, the wine selections have improved all across the Cactus Club board – especially at the flagship Bentall 5 on Burrard Street. But there is no other location where you'll find a $19 glass of Evening Land pinot noir from Oregon. And it has apparently been selling like hotcakes. (Personally, I prefer the $14 glass of rare Tantalus pinot noir from the Okanagan.)
This isn't a foray into fine dining. It will probably be several years before the Cactus Club backs Mr. Feenie's new rendition of Lumière. The menu here includes most of the Cactus Club standards – Cajun chicken sandwich, teriyaki rice bowl, crispy yam fries – and many of Mr. Feenie's signature dishes, including his Parmesan-crusted chicken rocket salad and famous butternut squash ravioli.
But there are several items on the seafood-heavy menu that are exclusive to this location. And Mr. Feenie rocks them out of the park. His Vietnamese-style salmon and prawn ceviche, cured in basil, mint and cilantro all tied together with a light lick of fish sauce, are firm bites of citrusy freshness.
A grilled albacore tuna club sandwich, rare-seared and piled high with crispy bacon, herbed tartar, arugula and pickled ginger in a densely moist ciabatta bun, will make you wonder, "Why ever use chicken?"
The salads are fresh, the vegetables are garden-crunchy, the sauces are all tightly balanced with acid – except for the miso mustard in the Szechuan salmon rice bowl, which seems overly sweetened to accommodate mainstream palates.
If you think $27 is pricey for a thick slab of flaky halibut (perfectly cooked in a light saffron cream with an orange fennel salad, local asparagus and freshly unzipped snap peas), consider what you'd pay for a similar portion at a fine-dining restaurant – about $40.
Casual fine-dining in Vancouver has changed. And the Cactus Club is pushing it forward. Mr. Feenie's signature dishes are as good, if not better, than those at most independent restaurants in the same range. And they're always consistent.
But here's another tip: only order his signature dishes. Don't go for the standards. The restaurant's regular lingcod fish tacos are compressed pucks buried under an avalanche of shredded cabbage with bland chipotle aioli stuffed in doughy white tortillas. They don't hold a candle to Mr. Feenie's fluffy, beer-battered lingcod smothered in a dark, fire-roasted tomato salsa wrapped in smaller, much tastier, warm corn tortillas. The latter are available for close to the same price at the outdoor concession stand next door.
There's a good reason Mr. Feenie was hired. And that's why Cactus Club English Bay is the only waterfront restaurant I would ever recommend.
So, we've introduced a star system. Why? Because it just makes things easier for readers. Here's how it works: One star and above is a good restaurant and a place we're recommending. We plan to save four stars for the very best places in the city. Stars reflect the food, service and atmosphere, with price taken into account.
No stars: Fair. Not recommended.
One star: Good, but won't blow a lot of minds.
Two stars: Very good, with some standout qualities.
Three stars: Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
Four stars: Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution.