When you see the phrase "hotel restaurant" as part of a restaurant review, it is almost always in the context of something like, "... but it's not bad for a hotel restaurant."

Hotel restaurants bring to mind prepackaged food sold at an exorbitant mark up because the owners know they have a captive audience. You know, the kind of place that serves fast-food quality hamburgers for $15. So when we heard that The Oxbow was going to have its own restaurant, we quietly hoped that they would not become another example of the "hotel restaurant" stereotype.

The Lakely, the new restaurant in the Oxbow, clearly throws that stereotype out the window. Helmed by renowned local chef Nathan Berg, The Lakely offers an innovative yet compact menu that should satisfy the needs of any diner in the Chippewa Valley.

We decided, being the adventurous eaters that we are, that we would visit The Lakely on opening night. Obviously, the first night a restaurant is open is always an adventure, but we were remarkably surprised at how smoothly the service went over the course of the evening. Jimmy, our server, did an excellent job of making sure that the pace of our meal was perfect, and his attentiveness to our table should be commended. We were also impressed with the speed of the bar service under lead bartender, Jorja. Our beverages were promptly refilled despite the complexities of some of the cocktails on the menu.

As a group, we sampled virtually the entire menu and we were, to say the least, impressed. While we could wax poetic about essentially everything we ordered, four menu items truly stood out. On the starter list, the roasted squash soup had an amazingly smooth texture and intensely rich flavor.

Another starter of note was Berg's take on traditional Canadian comfort food, poutine. The substitution of thinly sliced potatoes for fries and the savory mushroom gravy turned this appetizer into a clear winner.

Among the main courses, the clear consensus of the group was that the Hot Dish Au Canard was one we would definitely order again. The perfectly cooked duck combined with wilted greens, wild rice, and sarvecchio cream sauce was a wonderful, savory feature on the menu.

Another star on the menu was the Wild Rice Kofta, an outstanding vegetarian option with a spiced tomato cranberry sauce. The Kofta was an eye-opening revelation, and proof that not all restaurants in Eau Claire force vegetarians to eat piles of steamed vegetables.

Finally, we would be remiss if we did not mention the cocktail menu at The Lakely. Under the creative direction of lead bartender Jorja, there are several innovative beverages on the menu worthy of your attention. Two that stood out for us were the gin-based Corpse Reviver and the Maple Bourbon Sour, both of which became fast favorites among the group.

The clear consensus of the group was that The Lakely was offering a menu that is truly unique in the Chippewa Valley. Nathan Berg's innovative food and his commitment to local producers, combined with a fun and creative cocktail menu, as instantly turned The Lakely into one of our go-to spots.