There's a lot of water in Parkville these days. The Missouri River has aggressively swept over its banks, flooding English Landing Park and dampening local businesses. That would include River's Bend Restaurant & Bar, which didn't seem very busy on any of my three recent visits to the nine-month-old venue.
There could be other reasons, though. This restaurant operated for eight years as the Power Plant Restaurant and Brewery before closing in 2008. It sat empty for a couple of years, give or take a few private-party rentals, before the same owner reopened it last November as River's Bend. Who would have guessed last fall that the river would bend practically to the edge of this restaurant's parking lot by summer?
When it first opened, the Power Plant Restaurant was an ambitious contender. The menu boasted prime rib, chops, steaks, and a superb lemon-roasted chicken. Five years later, when I reviewed it again, the fancier dishes were gone, replaced by more traditional tavern fare: a sirloin marinated in the brewery's own ale, a good marinated rib-eye, bangers and mash, fettuccine Alfredo with chicken.
The River's Bend recedes still further. The new restaurant no longer operates as a brewery. "They sold all the brewing equipment to the people who own the 75th Street Brewery," a waitress here told me. Whether it's the absence of house-made beer or something else, whatever allure the place may have had as the Power Plant has been short-circuited.
What before was the primary dining room — once the coal bin, when this 1918 building served as the power station for what was then Park College — has been turned into a secondary dining area for large groups. Now most diners are seated in the spacious bar area, with the usual neon beer signs and unforgiving concrete floor. The tables and chairs look as though they might have been hauled out of an old VFW hall.
The menu is dominated by sandwiches, some of which are fine. The Reuben, in fact, is first-rate, made with tender corned beef on grilled rye. (The Thousand Island dressing comes on the side — a subtlety that's otherwise thoroughly out of character here.) River's Bend also serves burgers (the tasty sliders are better), chicken wings, mozzarella "stix" and forgettable salads. The dinner entrées include three variations on fettuccine Alfredo, a couple of steaks, a fried pork tenderloin, and beef brisket.
Perhaps in answer to all that nearby water, River's Bend also offers the least appetizing fish creation I've tasted in any metro restaurant. The almond-roasted tilapia is described on the menu as a "fresh tilapia fillet lightly breaded with a brown sugar-almond breading and baked to flaky perfection." I'm still apologizing to my friend Carol for encouraging her to order it.
She shuddered after the first bite and pushed her plate in my direction. "It tastes as if it was sprinkled with salt, cinnamon and sugar," she said. And slivered almonds, I noted, after taking a bite, trying to guess what was in the strange spice mixture. There did seem to be a cinnamon note, along with something else vaguely familiar. Clove?
"Oh, no," the waitress insisted. "There's no cinnamon in it. It's Old Bay seasoning."
Old Bay? I once worked in a restaurant where the crusty old cook doused everything, desserts included, with Old Bay, so I know there's cinnamon, clove, ginger and allspice in its proprietary blend. A heavy hand on the Old Bay shaker in the River's Bend kitchen ruins what should be a perfectly nice piece of tilapia. Carol made do with the runny garlic mashed potatoes instead.
My hickory-smoked beef brisket was sliced too thin, but the meat was tender. It might have been flavorful, too, but there was no way to know fore sure. The meat was smothered by a molasses-rich barbecue sauce. I chose my two accompanying side dishes unwisely: The macaroni and cheese was too dry, and the baked beans were too mushy.
The inexpensive rib-eye dinner was, at least relative to the sorry brisket and unforgivable fish, the choice meal of the night. It was perfectly grilled and properly flavorful. The side was another loser, though: no doubt the tiniest "loaded baked potato" in U.S. restaurant history.
On the other hand, River's Bend serves up the biggest stuffed mushroom caps I've ever seen. The gargantuan deep-fried mushrooms — bigger than most crab cakes in town — are allegedly stuffed with crabmeat. The filling is actually a Rangoon-style blend of cream cheese and bits of crab. Another crab dish on the menu, an Alfredo pasta that also includes shrimp, is prepared with imitation crab, but the pieces in the mushroom caps are so small, it matters little whether they're real or fake.
I'd say the less exotic your selection here, the better, though the kitchen does what it can to undo whatever esoteric touches the menu promises. The "Asian salad" wastes a surprisingly tasty house-made ginger vinaigrette on a mess of chow-mein noodles and some sticky-sweet teriyaki chicken.
The young servers here are so eager to please that you can't help but want this place to succeed, if only for them. But they're working against an overwhelming deluge of annoyances. Even the piped-in music assaults the hungry. A nearly empty dining room is no place for Warren Zevon. Then again, something has to battle the insect buzz. Heat and encroaching river water have turned all of Parkville into a magnet for flies, so River's Bend isn't alone in its punishment, but I had to leave the restaurant one afternoon before I ordered. There are flies, and then there's biblical onslaught.
This won't be an issue when the weather cools and the river recedes. But can River's Bend last that long? Several restaurants in Parkville — Café des Amis, the Piropos Grille, the eccentric Café Cedar — make this hamlet a destination for discerning metro eaters. For River's Bend to join their ranks and stick around, it needs a serious bailing out.