What I am presently surveying—aside from the most fetching collective of waitresses you can find a Mari usque ad Mare, guaranteed—is a cluster of seven delicate hand-cut butternut squash-stuffed ravioli, pleasantly drenched in beurre blanc, sprinkled with a little truffle oil and garnished with pine nuts and crisp-fried sage. The setting is new, but I have seen, eaten and loved this dish before.
The first time was nearly a decade ago, when a scaled-down portion appeared briefly before me as part of a long, three-figure tasting menu at Rob Feenie’s exquisite Lumière, in Kitsilano, Vancouver. We next met next door a couple of years later at the Lumière Tasting Bar, and our last encounter was in the neighbouring bistro—Feenie’s. A casual place, that, but not quite so much as the venue today: the flagship Bentall Centre location of the Cactus Club Café, where since 2008 Iron Chef Feenie has been employed as executive-chef-with-an-incomprehensible-title (“Food Concept Architect”).
Feenie sold about 400 ravioli (65 plates of six) per week at the Lumière Tasting Bar. Now instead he oversees weekly sales of about 50,000 ravioli (7,150 plates of seven) across the 21-restaurant Cactus chain. The main purpose of this lunchtime visit was to determine how, price aside, the dish had changed as its purpose evolved from pleasing a discerning (okay, wealthy) few to instead satisfying the rapacious hunger of the masses (well, middle class).
To look at it, not much. Unsurprisingly, the brunoise of black truffle that used to be stirred into the sauce—the tiny black cubes glistening seductively in their buttery emulsion—is no longer present, but the truffle oil delivers nearly the same aroma. The next most prominent difference is snapped into focus by the excess of pepper freshly deployed direct from the mill by a well-intentioned if over-exuberant waitress.
One of the things you pay for in a restaurant of the calibre Lumière used to be is the presence of an expert chef at the pass, constantly tasting and prodding and making sure that every plate is up to snuff, its seasonings in perfect harmony, before it leaves the kitchen. There is obviously no time for that sort of thing at a place like the Cactus Club. But that begs the question: does your average, mildly demanding diner prefer the knowledge that a brilliant chef just stuck a finger into the sauce on his plate to ensure that it was just so, or would he rather take his chances with the gorgeous, peppermill-toting waitress with the effortlessly warm smile?
“Some people miss the truffles,” replied chef Feenie, seated across the booth, displaying his seldom-observed diplomatic side. “The filling is exactly the same. The dough is exactly the same. The sauce and the garnish . . . no.”
So I finally have a bite—and what he says is true. The ravioli, once rolled out and cut by hand in his kitchen, and now prepared by commission in someone else’s, remain as good as they always were. The pasta is just as delicate and its filling is equally rich, for the cooked squash is still luxuriously thickened by being drained in cheesecloth (rather than through the traditional Tuscan addition of bread crumbs). But the true beurre blanc of the Feenie days is now, by necessity of volume, prepared in advance and stabilized with cream—a trick on which many restaurants far more expensive customarily rely. The garnish may show less finesse, and yes, I do miss the truffles, but this is still a fantastic dish, and if there is anyone inclined to argue against it at $17.50 per, I have yet to meet them.
The Feenie makeover of the Cactus menu is full of these sorts of successes, from the carpaccio to the duck-and-chicken club sandwich with crispy prosciutto, sake-soy caramelized sablefish, you name it, and every time I eat at Cactus I leave impressed that his understudies can crank it out with such consistency. For it was not always thus, and the change is good news.
Like the rise of the gastro-pub, this sort of phenomenon puts a lot of pressure on fine dining establishments—maybe as much as does the recession, for good food at an average price makes it easy to perceive the cost of fine-dining extras as too high. In other words, this improves dining out all around. That said, I still look forward to the day chef Feenie once again has a small restaurant of his own in which to show off his brilliance uncompromised.
SPECIAL EVENT: Jacob Richler and Scott Feschuk will host a chef’s tasting menu at the Cactus Club Café on June 14. To attend, go to macleans.ca/taste