Cactus Club, CalgaryI had two vastly different experiences this past month at two chain restaurants in Calgary. I didn’t set out to compare them but it’s hard not to, when one was so impressive and the other so laughable. First, the good.

The Cactus Club Cafe chain started in North Vancouver, B.C. in 1988. I recall the Cactus Club of my youth being a very casual place that featured neon cactus decor and lots of burgers.

Fast forward to this decade and Cactus Club has really pulled up its socks, changing its whimsical decor to that sleek, dark wood favoured by other upper-priced chains (Earl’s, Moxie’s et al). Its biggest coup has been to hire Rob Feenie, former owner and chef of award-winning Lumière in Vancouver, and the only Canadian to win on Iron Chef America.

Feenie used his French cuisine expertise to create “signature dishes” for Cactus Club. They’re simple but fresh, clean, and sophisticated enough for casual dining. Cactus Club has smartly put these next to its steaks and burgers, rather than abandoning their core audience.

As with Earl’s, Cactus Club skews towards attractive servers. Yes, this will reveal my bias, but I was greatly impressed with our gorgeous AND efficient AND friendly waitress on the night that we went.

The mains really shine. Rob’s Hunter Chicken ($22.50) is a gigantic, moist breast atop fresh green beans and herb fingerling potatoes. A demi-glace with button, portabello, shiitake and crimini mushrooms is cleaned off the plate.

Ravioli stuffed with butternut squash ($24.50) deserves applause, caressed by beurre blanc and amaretti and sprinkled with pine nuts and crispy sage. The addition of perfectly cooked prawns makes this the best chain dinner I’ve ever had.

— My review in Metro Calgary

Now compare that with our dinner at the Olive Garden, a concept developed by General Mills, Inc., maker of cereals and processed foods. Now keep in mind I usually go to chain restaurants with low expectations. I figure they’re good for a quick, OK, hot meal.

As we were seated, the waiter brought over two glasses of water, plunked them down on our table, mumbled, “Hello,” then left.

We perused the menu, and he came back … with a big bowl of salad and bread sticks. “Cheese?” he asked, holding the grater above the bowl. This was all before we said one single word to him.

Yes, every meal at Olive Garden comes with garlic bread sticks… and a choice of salad or soup. Guess not. He also never asked for our drink order. Could we argue he was being ultra-efficient? Sure, possibly. Was it strange? Very.

Our calamari appetizer ($9.50) surely came out of a frozen bag and we actually needed to salt it, which is unheard of when most restaurants tend to OVERsalt.

Jason’s four-cheese stuffed pansotti ($14.50) frankly looked so gross I couldn’t bear to take a photo of it. The pyramid-shaped ravioli stuffed with mozzarella, ricotta, asiago, parmesan were dried out and drowning in a brownish tomato-alfredo sauce that Jason said tasted “like Chef Boyardee sauce.” His dinner was mainly picking at the sausage pieces.

The cheese atop my chicken parmigiana ($17.50) was congealed, but at least the chicken was edible. My side fettuccine alfredo was watery and bland.

I know many people delight in taking home leftovers of the massive Olive Garden portions, but we couldn’t even bear to contemplate the food left on our plates.

The pièce de résistance came at the end as the waiter gave us our bill. As he was walking away, he threw a handful of mint chocolates onto our table. We both burst out laughing, and got out of there as fast as we could.

Cactus Club Cafe, 2612-39th Ave. NE, Calgary, (403) 250-1120. 20 locations in B.C., Alberta.
Olive Garden, 333-36th St. NE, Calgary, (403) 248-1020.

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