The first of the banjos came out just after 8 p.m., as the dinner crowd in the Drake Devonshire's soaring, lakefront dining room began to fill in with amateur musicians from around Prince Edward County.
A local in straight-leg jeans and a denim jacket took to a makeshift stage. "I see a lot of amazing talent out there," he announced into the sound system. It was open mic night at the new hotel and self-styled cultural hub. Two kindergarten-aged children, shod in gumboots, skittered around the emcee as he spoke.
A tanned young couple who looked as though they'd just flown in from Rome or Capri – the Devonshire has begun appearing on all the important international hot lists – made a retreat toward the guest rooms. Other patrons bore panicky "cheque please" expressions as the emcee, who introduced himself as "Stew," began to strum on a guitar.
But if you're expecting that what followed was some sort of screeching, room-clearing, hillbilly jamboree, or that Drake Hotel Properties' most ambitious project yet has finally cost the company its Queen West mojo, prepare to be surprised. The restaurant, which is cantilevered over a creek and a limestone beach on Lake Ontario, is one of the most magical new spots to open in the province in recent memory. The service and cooking are pitch-perfect for the setting, and the design, which mines a summer-camp-in-Canada vibe, deftly balances lake-country Canadiana with cosmopolitan cool.
Even the music was terrific. As Stew started singing, panicked expressions in the room gave way to grins and head bobbing. The crowd settled deep into their chairs. He sang New Madrid, by Uncle Tupelo, in a clear, expressive tenor, and followed it with a song by Blackpool, a 1980s Halifax band. A second singer came up to join him. Drink orders poured into the bar.
This was a cold Tuesday night in the middle of April in a sleepy town of 1,800 people at the corn and soy and hay-cropped edge of Lake Ontario. And it felt a lot like the only place in the world you'd want to be.
The Drake Devonshire Inn is a 13-room boutique hotel as well as a restaurant and event space, built on the site of a historic country lodge. It opened last September, two years late – what was intended as a simple reno became a major design and engineering challenge. The place is a project of the pioneering arts-meets-hospitality Toronto-based company that also runs the original Drake Hotel on Queen Street West and the Drake 150 downtown.
There's a barn space to one side, hewn from rough Douglas fir, with doors and windows that open wide so the lake breeze whispers through. They use it for farmers' markets, for events and for summer seating – it feels like an old-time, screened-in dance hall, but with a floor-to-gables pop-art mural on one wall.
At the other end of the complex there's a glass box set with a competition-grade Ping-Pong table and an antique backgammon board, and a huge leather shipping trunk stocked with board games. (Operation! Guess Who?) Kids tend to disappear into here after dessert.
The grounds are littered with art installations: a weather-beaten piano that plays Chopin through the sound of lake surf; a giant dumpster cast from bronze; a gloriously garish girdle made from knotted rope, knitted around the trunk and branches of a maple that towers over the waterside lawn. There's a beanbag toss and a fire pit. When you order the s'mores for dessert here, they hand you blocks of Jersey Milk chocolate, marshmallows, skewers and Graham wafers, and send you on your way.
Yet the main dining room, ringed in glass and rammed with artwork and exquisite design details – the squadron of aluminum paper planes nosed into a wall under a rafter; the cheery yellow marine lamps; the oversized, high-gloss fish lures displayed like modern art – best captures the glory and the whimsy of the place. A disclaimer here: The Devonshire's principal designer, John Tong, is a friend of mine. (I've made a point of never speaking with him about the project.) But I would say this even if I'd never heard of him: It is a magnificent and captivating space.
The chef here, named Matt DeMille, trained in Toronto, working up to the chef de cuisine job at Enoteca Sociale before he relocated to the county three years ago. He's now effectively a local in an area whose residents are famously suspicious of city folk. Mr. DeMille knows how to cater to out-of-towners and the locals both.
You can get an excellent griddled "Devonshire burger" made with beef from a county cattle operation (Mr. DeMille's kitchen conspicuously features county products). It is cooked to medium, sloppy and delicious with local Black River cheddar, crisp bacon and Russian dressing.
Or if you'd rather: a plate of fried artichokes on a floe of anchovy mayonnaise, with bright red lumpfish caviar as a garnish, and "chips" made from orange rounds that have been sliced thin and dehydrated to a gloriously sweet-bitter crisp. The balance and daring of this dish is breathtaking; the price just $11. (Correction: You could get that until this week, when Mr. DeMille introduced a new spring menu.)
He recently began serving superb seared pickerel over lima beans and roasted zucchini rounds and fennel, in a nest of herbs and cresses. The chef's charcuterie plate is one of the better ones I've tried lately. His duck prosciutto was lusty crimson and sliced thinly enough that it looked like old stained glass; the flavours of iodine and salt-cured game fowl and opulent running fat reverberated like a major chord on a nine-foot grand with the sustain pedal nailed to the floor. Nearly as good: the fixings on that plate, including spicy pickled green beans and cranberry chutney.
There was a salad of peppery baby kale leaves, nuts and puffed wild rice with a roasted mushroom dressing. The gnocchi, sauced with "wild boar bolognese" and mimolette cheese, were good, though the sauce was more fried ground pork than bolognese. (And no matter what people tell you, Ontario "wild" boar is actually farmed.) A different version of the gnocchi, with squash and wilted dandelion, was much better. The chowder one night tasted more like cream and wine than seafood, as if they'd forgotten to add the fish. The misses here were otherwise very few.
Mr. DeMille napped a side of roasted cauliflower with a smooth, whipped fog of sauce gribiche, the tart, hard-boiled egg and capers emulsion. Every restaurant should do cauliflower like this.
They're not aiming to be a temple to gastronomy here, but to serve tasty, well-made, reasonably-priced cooking with (mostly) familiar flavours. Given that aim, they're hitting it out of the park.
The chef even changed my opinion of beef tenderloin last weekend. Tenderloin doesn't taste like much, usually. The roast tenderloin special was so big-flavoured that it ate like a rib-eye, without the chew. Mr. DeMille moistened it with a morel mushroom reduction, and added pert, grilled asparagus, and a top-rate hollandaise. For this, he charged just $38. The county keeps kitchens humble. You ought to get there if you can.
Desserts were excellent, especially the rye-pastry tart filled with blood-orange curd and orange segments, garnished with frozen pistachio cream. That dessert, like most of what I ate at the Devonshire, disappeared earlier this week. It's spring now (or is it summer?) The menu had to change.
The weather was warmer last Saturday than on that first visit back in April. The room was packed with all types: kids, olds, a young mother having quiet dinner with her preteen daughter, back-slapping locals in blazers and sandals and polyester Hawaiian shirts, young, fashionable out-of-town types who were getting away from it all, but not entirely, for a night or two. Late-afternoon sunlight beamed into the room.
Though this wasn't an open-mic night, the spirit was celebratory, as though we were not, in fact, at a restaurant, but in the mess hall of a uniquely design-minded summer camp. Sixties-era Hinterland Who's Who vignettes, from the Canada Wildlife Service, played in a mesmerizing loop on a television above the bar; somebody broke out humming the series' theme music as we started into dessert.
After dinner we went out to the beach and my kid joined a game of beanbag toss. My wife checked to see if any rooms were available. Wellington didn't feel sleepy any more.