Cactus Club Ocean Wise pan-seared saffron halibut, Tim Pawsey photo

A few tastings come around each year which we consider ‘don’t miss’ dates. Some are pretty obvious, such as when Penfolds senior winemaker Peter Gago comes to town, or Yalumba’s irrepressible ambassador Jane Ferrari. However, it might surprise you learn that another worthwhile event on our calendar has turned out to be the unveiling of new menu items, which rolls out the latest from Cactus Club ‘Food Concept Architect’ Rob Feenie. It’s a good chance to see what’s new at Cactus Club, which rarely stands still.

These lunches are hosted by Cactus Club CEO Richard Jaffray beneath the soaring glass atrium of Cactus Club Bentall V, in the heart of the city’s financial district. It’s a happening joint at lunchtime, especially if the market’s looking up…

Jaffray, by the way, qualifies as one of Vancouver’s most interesting restaurateurs, not only for his considerable smarts in building the business to what it is but also as a passionate collector of modern art.

Keen modern art collector Richard Jaffray with Warhol's 'After the Party,' Tim Pawsey photo

Who would have guessed, for instance, that nowhere in this city has more original Basquiat or Warhol on display than Cactus Club?

Aside from catching up with these latest tastes (and Jaffray’s acquisitions), the other lure is that this Cactus club in particular sports a pretty decent cellar, which is tapped generously for this occasion.

Cactus Club 'Chief Food Architect' Rob Feenie, Tim Pawsey photo

We won’t drive you through the entire tasting, except to say that there were some remarkably good flavours, as there always are. We’re always keen to catch up with Rob Feenie, who took over the Cactus Club culinary reins after losing lumiere. At that time, quite a few people snubbed him for moving ‘down’ to Casual Fine Dining. Nearly three years in, however, we think he’s never looked happier, more energised, and healthy. (Guess we’ll we’ll have to take up cycling too…)  Most importantly, his hand has shifted CC’s game—and its image—dramatically.

We got a big kick out of the reception wine— the seductively toasty and rich ’98 Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill (BCLS $189.99)—being poured with what may be the best Cactus Club deal going: Lettuce wraps of Korean style barbecue pork, with chopped ginger and mild chili bean sauce—$14.75

When Feenie was looking to make his seasonal squash soup he couldn’t find enough organic grown vegetables to keep the chain supplied. Instead, he turned to organic celeriac, which he works into a delicious, velvet-smooth soup, made with vegetarian friendly stock. A keeper for sure! Well matched with Le Vieux Pin Feenie’s Blend 09 (Viognier, Sauv. Blanc, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay).

Cactus Club grilled Steelhead with barley and grainy mustard soy sauce, Tim Pawsey photo

The highlight for us of this tasting was grilled Ocean Wise steelhead trout ($23.50), which with its assertive, grainy mustard and soy butter sauce seemed decidedly Burgundian! And, indeed, it was served with a very polished Pinot—Lucien le Moine ‘Clos de la Roche’ 06 (The steelhead is net-penned, land-locked lake raised, by the way, and delicious. You can buy it at Costco…says Feenie.)

Although it looked very pretty, we weren’t as excited by the pan-seared Ocean Wise halibut (see above), with orange fennel salad, asparagus and saffron cream sauce, a complicated dish (maybe too) bravely paired with Querciabella Chianti Classico 07.

One more great deal: fork tender, twice braised pineapple ginger short rib, that comes with a marginally addictive spicy soy bean sauce ($23), intensely flavourful, and a slam dunk with the blackberry and cassis Chateau Rauzan-Segla 05 Bordeaux.

Richard Jaffray shows off designs for new cactus Clubs, Tim Pawsey photo

Jaffray also took time to show off the latest renditions for CC’s new Vancouver waterfront locations: the English Bay ‘store’ and the new Vancouver Convention Centre (at 8,900 sq. ft., the largest yet), both of which should be open in 2011.

Artist's rendition of English Bay Cactus Club, looking west

There was quite the kerfuffle about Cactus Club winning the rights to the English Bay location. However, we’re pretty sure that the low-rise, multi coloured glass design will ultimately prove quite attractive—and no doubt give The EB Boathouse a much needed run for its money!

Yes, we were hosted, and very well. But our several impromptu visits to Bentall V Cactus Club have proved this kitchen knows its stuff. It’s a dynamic space with good taste to match. Both on the plate, in the glass—and on the walls!

And did we mention the Cactus Club washrooms?