Last night a scaled-down version of the Burger Club visited the Cactus Club at the invitation of Executive Chef Julian Bond. What follows is my report - no doubt the others who were there will follow with their comments. Mooshmouse was our official event photographer and hopefully she will have a chance to post her photos soon. Our host for the evening was Jeff, one the managers at this CC location. Jeff started the evening off by asking us what we usually drank with burgers. We all placed our orders, and then Jeff announced that we wouldn't be having that because tonight they wanted us to try things we wouldn't normally order. Fair enough. Jeff brought out a selection of beers (Ugly and Udder Ale) for the girls who normally order cocktails, and a Pomtini for me. The pomtini was way too sweet for my liking, but it was followed by a cocktail called a Brazillian, which totally rocked. Fresh lime and fresh kiwi are crushed in the glass, then you add liquid cane sugar, some kind of brazillian rum and Sprite. It was tremendous. Great blend of tart and sweet, kinda like a kiwi (go figure...!). It'll make a great summer patio drink when consumed by the bucketfull. As it turned out, the evening was about much more than burgers. The folks at Cactus Club took the opportunity to tour us through their complete menu, and started off by bringing us a selection of appetizers. We were served edamame, green beans flash-fried with garlic, onion, jalapeno (plus one other ingredient...anyone recall what it was?), a mango & shrimp salsa dish that they served with small little won-ton tacos (vry fresh tasting and interesting but the taco needed work), and the house special appetizer that I can't for life of me remember the name of! This is apparently the best selling item on Cactus Club's menu. They are simply chunks of chicken, breaded and deep fried, then lightly tossed with a sauce and served. According to Chef Julian, who came out and joined us when the appy's were ready, they sell $2 million worth of these things (presumably annually!), and every hostess is required to recommend them to you when you are first seated. We were also served a handroll made from sweet tofu with sushi rice and smoked salmon inside. This was the the best and msost interesting appy. Julian mentioned that they are working on a smoked tuna version of this - it will be terrifc, I'm sure. Once we powered our way through the appetizers, we were off for a tour of the back-of-house. The planned schedule had us finished and on our way by 6:45pm but at 6:20 all 7 of us marched into the kitchen right in the middle of the dinner rush. 11 line cooks, 3 managers, and a dozen or so servers were all working flat out - it was pretty cool to see up close. Julian pointed out several interesting things about the way the kitchen is set up for maximum efficiency, right down to how the dishes are stacked in the dish pit to minimize the time the servers spend dropping them off. He also related an interesting tidbit about how the new plates they commissioned to serve the new burgers on are proving to be flawed - when stacked beside the dish pit, the lip on the underside chips the tops of the plae below it. They are breaking a plate a day, and at $24 a plate that's a big cost over the course of a year. They are getting the manufacturer to pin-fire them in the hopes of correcting the problem. The cold storage area was fascinating. It's about the size of a small bathroom, albeit with 12 foot ceilings. It's probably 6' x 12', about as big as a good size pantry in a nicely equipped home kitchen. Not a lot of anything is kept there, as obviously they turn everything over pretty quick. The steaks and burgers are kept here (i.e. they are not frozen), and I was very surprised to see how large the uncooked burger patties are. The patties are 100% chuck (i.e. no beef filler, only meat) and come into the restaurant pre-formed and vacuum packed. Off the back of the cold storage room is the freezer, which is WAY smaller than you'd think. IIRC, the only thing they keep in there is french fries and ice cream. Maybe 4' x 4' of freezer space. Back out of the kitchen and down the stairs into the test kitchen. Julian's office is right there beside the island countertop and stoves, and the actual working part of the test kitchen is just like a real line kitchen only with fewer/smaller appliances. Julian talked about how much work goes into both creating a new dish and improving old ones. Every week one menu item is chosen for a intensive re-think, and everyone from Julian down to a few of the wait staff pick the item apart and brainstorm ways to make it better. This process which goes on continuously and helps ensure that everything on the menu is always improving. They also test equipment in the test kitchens, and at the moment they are looking at a bar-fridge sized hot and cold smoker ($399 at Cdn Tire and Julian says it rocks....home smoking enthusiasts take note) and capuccino machines. A brief note about Julian: He's very young and completely manic. Picture Robin Williams with a british accent! His passion for food is plain for all to see, and the guy positively bounces off the walls. A very interesting guy and a lot of fun to spend time with. Back upstairs for main courses: Pistachio-crusted sablefish over mashed potatoes and a thai curry sauce, BBQ Ribs with Jack Daniels sauce and thai (I think it was thai) Chicken Rice bowl. The fish was good - nice and fresh and well cooked. The ribs were mediocre, mainly due to being overly dry. They needed to use fattier ribs, IMHO (if you want low fat, don't order the freakin' ribs!). I liked the BBQ sauce, but those who prefer a sweet BBQ sauce would likely disagree. The rice bowl was....well, it was a rice bowl. Pretty hard to impress with a rice bowl. It would make a excellent lunch dish. Finally, the burgers. I've been into this particular CC 10 times since they started serving this new burger. Twice, the burger was orgasmic. Once, it sucked. The other 7 times it was good but not great. Last night was visit number 11 (oh, the things I do in the name of culinary research!) and scored an 8th "good but not great". On the negative side, the bun and condiments overwhelm the patty, and the patty itself was cooked just past pink. The patty is 100% chuck (i.e. no butt, lips or feet) with little or no seasoning (which is just as I like it), but needs to be very juicy to give you maximum beef flavour. Still, there was a reasonable amount of beef flavour, just a bit more muted than the times I've had the burger with a slightly pink centre. On the positive side, the bun is very good. Once the restaurant figures out how to get bun warmers deployed, watch out. Extremely fresh condiments, a Goldilocks-sized (not-to-thick-and-not-to-thin) slice of cheddar and some tasty bacon make the toppings one of the highlights. Overall, I'd give the burger a 6.5 out of 10. Cook it about a minute less, and it's a strong 7 or an 8. One important thing to note is that Chef Julain did NOT cook for us. All the meals were prepared by the line cooks at the height of the dinner rush. That impressed me. Julian was buzzing around the kitchen and the chefs saw us getting the VIP tour so they likely knew to bring their A game, but CC was confident enough in their skills to let a high-profile group of diners be served just like everyone else in the restaurant. Julain acknowledged that one major issue for them is consistency (case in point was the chicken appetizer, which Julain pointed out was prepared incorrectly). Desserts were next up and we were served a flourless molten chocolate cake, apple pie, and key lime pie. All were good and I particularly liked the molten chocolate cake - a strong chocolate flavor but not too sweet, plus a generous pour of raspberry puree. The two pies were served a la mode, and Julian feels that his ice cream is the best in the world. It's a very sweet vanilla, and while I probably wouldn't agree with his "best in the world" claim, it was excellent. So there you have it. This is one seriously well run and well managed business. It's much more science than art, which is the inevitable by-product of how much volume they do. Everyone on the CC team are very serious about what they do, and it shows (in a good way) from the genuine happy-to-meet-us smile on the face of the corporate architect we ran into in the test kitchen to the slogan embroidered onto Julian's jacket ("Every Customer Leaves Happy"). There was much discussion around our table comparing the food we were tasting with other local restaurants. As with all things, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and some will prefer the burger from somewhere else or will think the ribs are a better value over there. But I think we forget that Cactus Club isn't trying to be Feenie's (or even Vera's or Fatburger for that matter). Feenie's is more art than science, and when viewed in that light, Cactus Club is a pretty impressive operation. All in all, it was a fascinating evening. Many thanks to the folks at Cactus Club for their hospitality. Their openness and willingness to open the corporate kimino a little bit made for a very illuminating evening.