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restaurant review

A roasted-carrot dish has made the rounds on social media, accompanied by rave reviews, but during the vegetables were largely overcooked and overhype.

If you happened to live in Calgary in the 1980s and found yourself walking down – okay, maybe stumbling down – 10th Avenue (back then known as Electric Avenue), you might have looked up – way up – to see a larger-than-life comic-strip character proclaiming words of wisdom. After being dormant for many years, Ten Foot Henry, the bald man, the myth, the legend, is back in action by way of one of Calgary's newer restaurants.

Though Henry has little to do with the menu itself, cartoon characters reliably exude a sense of mystique, don't they? Of course they do. That might be part of the reason why this eatery, owned by Steve Smee and Aja Lapointe, has the charm that it does.

Years ago, the husband-and-wife team helped open and operate Una Pizza, the now well-oiled restaurant machine on 17th Avenue known for its cheerful, knowledgeable service and California-style thin-crust pizzas.

Ten Foot Henry's service is very similar. Actually, it's almost identical -- and that's a good thing.

See the room and the chef at Ten Foot Henry

The hipster-chic staff – whom you can't quite tell if they are lively mid-twenty somethings or late thirties and just look that good – are prompt and well-informed. They have "favourite" dishes they'll suggest, they know the wines well, they will engage in just the right level of small talk. It isn't always easy to do these things and maintain a level of genuineness, especially from host to server to floor manager, but the service staff I've encountered here on separate occasions have all made it seem like a breeze. That's not just hard to find in Calgary, that's hard to find across the country.

Mr. Smee and Ms. Lapointe enlisted local interior designer Connie Young to make their vision come to life. When you walk into Henry, you shuffle through a small hallway before you reach the dining room. Not knowing what to expect from the street is not overly inviting to a passersby, but it does adds a nice level of surprise when you've made a conscious decision to dine here. Even with minimal natural light in the setback dining room, the space feels boldly bright during the day with tall, white walls, potted plants hanging from wooden beams and deep-blue tiles that frame the sizable, focal-point open kitchen on the west wall. In the evening, it's equally charming, with a buzzing atmosphere whether you're sitting at the kitchen bar, at the high-top communal table or cozied up along one of the banquettes. Looking into my crystal ball for the remainder of 2016, I don't foresee any upcoming restaurant's design topping this one.

Chef Smee's menu is an unfussy and joyously value-driven one – a smart move given the current economy in Calgary. The concise descriptors never lead you astray, as he sticks to only a handful of ingredients on any given dish. No aspect of a particular plate is overly adulterated, leaving the ingredients to speak for themselves. Whether that ends up being a good speech or a not-so-great one depends on what you order. Over the lunch hour, diners can opt for a $19, five-course meal that highlights some of the menu mainstays, as well as daily creations.

A slight downside to this value-driven mentality is that many dishes have relatively hefty portion sizes. A table of two may fill up on only a few shared plates, so it's better to come with a group of four or more if you want to get a decent impression of what the restaurant strives for.

If you are active on local social media, you have likely seen a picture of Ten Foot Henry's roasted carrots with avocado purée and pistachios. People rave about them, but when you can cut into root vegetables with minimal effort with a spoon, I'd have to classify them as overcooked and overhyped. Spooning into almost-mushy carrots sitting on a pile of similarly textured avocado purée with pistachios that have more chew than crunch was less than pleasant twice in a row.

The social media force was strong with this one, so before putting the final touches on this piece, I had to pop into the restaurant one more time just to try the carrots again. Was I wrong or was everyone else wrong?

At three strikes in my books, I'm sticking with a "It's not me. It's you" frame of mind.

Forget the hype. It's the understated dishes here, the ones that don't plague your Instagram stream, that you'll find the most deliciously rewarding. A mushroom omelette after the brunching hour is not normally something one would crave, but slicing into this classically prepared, pillowy French omelette filled with mushrooms that's topped with a slightly tart frisée salad and a touch of truffle oil proves that breakfast for dinner can be a wondrous thing.

The unassuming potato dish, a simple purée blended with goat yogurt, topped with beet chips and a fried egg, was an impulsive, last-minute order, but one of the most memorable dishes.

Since everything on the menu is a sharing dish, don't ignore the mistitled "side dishes" section, because then you'd skip over the borscht and dumplings. This comforting plate, much like its "side dish" partners, has the same proportions as any other plate. Warm stewed beets come topped with sour cream and fresh dill. This kind of home cooking is widely available on the Prairies but, trust me, it is rarely as gratifying as this chef-tweaked variation.

Segueing into the sweet, keep far, far away from the overbaked and over-iced coconut cake and opt for the butterscotch pudding instead. It's splendid in both price ($7) and taste, with its silky-smooth texture, butterscotch-sauce drizzle and crunchy, salted sponge toffee, though the gigantic portion could very easily be split among four people after a dinner. It's too much for two and definitely overload for one.

In the end, Ten Foot Henry – with its exceptional service standards, captivating atmosphere and myriad of dishes that occasionally miss the mark – is a perfect example of a restaurant being greater than the sum of its parts.

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