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For some reason, perhaps an old Raymore custom, the appetizer platter and the hot "basket of breads" arrived after our server had brought out the salads. Too bad, because the doughy Indian Fry Bread, the sweet corn bread and the sourdough rolls would have been nice with the chilled salads, which were drenched with the restaurant's house vinaigrette. (That dressing was made in the kitchen, we were told, with wine vinegar and chopped chipotles, but it tasted exactly like bottled Italian with a dash of chili powder.) Even as a post-salad adventure, the bread assortment was a hit with my friend Bob's mother, Evelyn, who loved the fact that she could slather on butter blended with chives or sweet caramelized onions.
"I wish they had something this nice in Joplin," she said.
Leitner compares his little restaurant to "a cross between Applebee's and Houston's." But really, the Wind River Grill owes most of its inspiration to traditional roadside diners and family-owned small-town cafés that served "fancy" variations on farm fare: a roasted chicken basted in maple syrup, pan-sautéed rainbow trout, chicken-fried steak smothered with cream gravy.
Evelyn, who owned a diner in the 1950s, raved about Leitner's version of the latter dish, a tender hunk of juicy chopped steak breaded and fried until it was just crispy and served with hot mashed potatoes whipped with grated cheddar. Her son was equally appreciative of the triple meatloaf, a slab of beef, veal and pork wrapped with a layer of smoked bacon and served under a glaze of mushroom-wine gravy next to a mountain of steaming garlic mashed potatoes. I had decided to veer into the unknown and try the Tabasco-grilled chicken, which arrived furiously pink and surprisingly flavorless despite the peppery marinade. The accompanying pile of linguini drenched in a roasted tomato sauce was a shade too sweet for my taste. But to my amazement, the dreaded vegetable "medley" that accompanied it was not a soggy glob of overcooked sludge but a genuine assortment of crisp, distinct, fresh flavors (in this case, broccoli, carrots and zucchini).
On another visit, I again decided to sample one of the offbeat choices, a hamburger made from bison meat. (The restaurant also serves a bison strip steak.) I was told that it's very low in fat, with more potassium than a banana. It turned out to be low in flavor, too, as well as dry, and the crispy french fries had been shaken with too much salt. My companions had better luck. Bob's grilled chicken with penne pasta had a blanket of subtle but rich blue-cheese sauce, and, because it was Thursday -- "Barbecue Night" -- his cousin Mickey had ordered a plate of meaty rib bits in an addictively sweet sauce.
We all had room for dessert. Leitner offers six choices, all of them made at the restaurant, including an old-fashioned peach upside-down cake (served warm, so the vanilla ice cream slowly melts over it). The fried-apple cheesecake wasn't cheesecake at all but sweetened cream cheese and baked cinnamon apples wrapped in a 10-inch tortilla, deep fried, then rolled in cinnamon and sugar. It arrived steaming, doused in caramel sauce and tidily cut into even portions so we didn't have to jab each other with our forks fighting over each piece. Alas, there was no Shake-A-Pudding. But there were tiny warm bundt cakes oozing with peanut butter filling and a cake dripping with chocolate, nuts and caramel that tasted just like a Snickers bar.