Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
We've heard it asked many times: Where can you dine with wine (or your favorite alcoholic beverage) while staying atop Petit Jean Mountain? Until recently the answer had been "in your own cabin/lodge room/tent." That was before the River Rock Grill.
The grill is in the beautiful Winthrop Rockefeller Institute (on what was the late governor's ranch) and to get there you must traverse country roads and cow fields. The only barrier to admission is that one must sign up for a free club membership to dine there.
We have been a few times now, and thought we had our review in the bag after the penultimate visit back in May. We had dined on tres amigos, a selection of guacamole, salsa and cheese dip with fresh hot chips; garlic shrimp over linguini, and poached salmon with asparagus. As we left that time, the waitress invited us to come back a few weeks later for the unveiling of a new menu.
We did, and what we found surprised us. The menu, once two pages encompassing sandwiches in the $6 range and several entrees and salads under $20, has been reduced to a single page. The choices have been limited. We were asked to wait more than an hour for anything other than beverages, though the restaurant was all but deserted. Indeed, we would have gone somewhere else, had we been just about anywhere else.
When service did come, we were given salads right off the bat, but were told the kitchen had run out of bread. Things weren't looking good. We placed our orders and hoped for some semblance of the previous dining experiences we had enjoyed.
And as luck would have it, our persistence and wait paid off, first with the arancini ($7), fresh risotto balls stuffed with mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. We were surprised that instead of several small bite-sized portions we received two fist-sized balls, very hot and, as our dining partner called them, "righteous." They were served up with a creamy tomato soup dotted with more Parmesan and a generous bed of mixed greens.
Our entrees came out post haste, before we could really dig in to our appetizer. No worries, we were plenty ready. Our companion had chosen the steak frites ($20), hoping it resembled a former star of the menu, the brown sugar-encrusted steak. It indeed was as good, cooked to a delicious medium rare, with a somewhat crunchy sweet and slightly salty crust to it. This steak alone is worth the drive up the mountain. It came on a bed of frites and with a ramekin of creamed spinach. The thick and creamy spinach was a great item in itself. The fries were just OK.
We were stunned with the audacity of the chef in his selection of ingredients for the Carducci grouper ($19). The perfectly cooked grouper came with a smattering of blood orange slices on top and tucked into a little paper pouch that rested on a bed of succulent fennel and onions. The blood oranges did not do much for this reviewer, but the fish and fennel went together quite well. We were smitten with the fried risotto cakes that came along.
We submitted ourselves to the only dessert on the menu, simply listed as "cheesecake" ($5). We were expecting an average New York-style cheesecake. What we received was a slice of creamy-yet-firm-custard cheesecake, bathed in a simple no-sugar-added raspberry coulis. So simple, so well done. And even though our time at the restaurant passed the two-hour mark, we were glad we had given in.
We're hoping the service issues aren't repeated in the future. We will have to see about taking the trip up the mountain again soon, just to give it a shot.
River Rock Grill
Winthrop Rockefeller Institute on Petit Jean Mountain
1 Rockefeller Drive
The restaurant has the only full bar we know of on the mountain.
11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Reservations accepted.