The Changing Face of Chain Dining

image: Chef Rob Feenie, Food Concept Architect for Cactus Club

I have never been a fan of chain restaurants. Boring menus that cover the gamut from “pan-Asian stir fry” to “B.C. pizza” and “sliders,” all served up in portions more suited for truck drivers and priced for flashy executives has never been a personal draw.

There are, however, some exceptions. Joey Restaurants, despite their young client (and staff) demographic, have blossomed under Executive Chef Chris Mills’ tutelage (Mills has been invited to cook twice—a rare honour—at James Beard House in New York). The menus are interesting, the prices are reasonable, and despite the typical monster servings, there are a growing number of sustainable and local items being offered across the chain.

Nor are they alone. Cactus Club, which boasts Chef Rob Feenie as their “food concept architect,” has turned into a vanguard of forward-thinking restonomics. Not only is the restaurant group a member of organizations like Ocean Wise and Green Table, but there is a constant effort to incorporate small, independent growers and suppliers onto a menu that is both well-executed and accessible. In addition, Cactus Club has been steadily improving their wine list, under the baton of Wine Director Sam Zavari, and recently received the Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator magazine. Wines are carefully chosen from local (and select international) wineries not only for their individual qualities, but also for how well they pair with Chef Feenie’s dishes.

At a recent media tasting of the new spring menu, some stand-outs included a goat cheese and feta flatbread topped with caramelized onions, pesto, grape tomatoes and arugula, and drizzled with a balsamic glaze. The flatbread was paired with Haywire’s 2009 Switchback Vineyard Pinot Gris. A popular staple on the menu, the butternut squash ravioli in truffle beurre blanc, pine nuts and crispy sage leaves, is now topped with prawns sautéed in white wine and was paired with California’s Patz & Hall Dutton Ranch Chardonnay. A general favourite was the Hawaiian glazed short ribs. The braised beef was glazed with a pineapple hoisin and topped with marinated shitake mushrooms. The 2005 Chateau Rauzan-Segla Bordeaux was a perfect match, and stood up well to the sweet notes in the dish.

If this is the future of chain dining in B.C., it’s nothing to sniff at, and the ravioli will definitely see me returning soon.

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