À bientôt, Quenelle

The space that was once home to one of Buffalo’s all time beloved French restaurants – Rue Franklin – will soon be home to a new French restaurant by the name of Quenelle. Owners/operators, Leacel Hillenbrand and Rachel Herman-Gross, chose the name Quenelle as tribute to one of Rachel’s all time favorite Lyonnaise dishes (quenelle – a dish that is a mixture of creamed fish or meat, with egg binding, typically poached). Rachel had fallen head over heels in love with the dish upon paying a visit to Le Coucou in NYC -a city where she had previously lived for 18 years, before moving back to Buffalo in 2015.

Upon moving back to Buffalo, after bartending in NYC in the 2000’s – where she worked for “a forward thinking company in the city’s cocktail movement” – Rachel happily found herself at William K’s and Angelica Tea Room. It was while opening Angelica Tea Room as General Manager and establishing the cocktail program that she met Leacel. The two formed an immediate bond, while working alongside “an amazing all-female staff.” You might say that that original bond would lead the two to ultimately dream up the origins for Quenelle, which came about when the they both firmly decided that they didn’t want to work for anyone else anymore.

But before we get to the foundations of Quenelle, it’s important to note that Rachel did a two-year stint at Prescott’s Provisions, where she was “head of spirits and cocktails.” Then she found her way to M.S. Walker – Spirits Importing and Distributing, where, over the course of four years, she “learned a ton about wine and the wine industry.” It’s how she came to realize just how important the small producers are, and how they have become the stewards of the environment. These are the types of mindful sensibilities that will be incorporated into the ethos of Quenelle.

As Rachel was carving out her path in the industry, Leacel – who originally hails from California – was acclimating herself to Buffalo’s restaurant scene, initially serving at Panorama on Seven, and most recently bartending at Trattoria Aroma on Bryant Street. All the while, she and Rachel would discuss the “what ifs” regarding teaming up to do their own thing. As they bounced around a number of concepts, Rachel’s big “aha” moment came to pass.

“I took one bite of the quenelle at Le Coucou and it was life changing,” Rachel told me. “That was last summer. We had been discussing a number of concepts, and when I got back to Buffalo I told Leacel about the experience and we decided that we needed to open a French restaurant. As for the Rue Franklin location, I was personally drawn to that location because my uncle was a chef there. He has since passed, but he was like a restaurant idol to me.”

“Before her trip back to NYC, our intention was to open something, but we didn’t have a location or a concept,” Leacel told me. “We had chosen each other as business partners, but that was about it. We knew that we wanted to open something that Buffalo was lacking, and when she told me about her experience at Le Coucou we both knew that we had found our opportunity. Rachel has always been my biggest mentor, so I trusted her. We kept thinking about things that Buffalo needed – her trip to NYC nailed down the French concept. We never rushed anything – it came about in a very organic kind of way.”

“We’re not trying to recreate the Rue Franklin,” Rachel pointed out.

Leacel added, “But how romantic is it that we get to open our restaurant in one of Buffalo’s most cherished French restaurant spaces?”

The next step was, of course, was to find a chef that could expertly execute a French dining concept. That task turned out to be quite interesting, the way that it unfolded. Rachel was attending a family holiday event when a particular chef showed up with the dessert. It turned out that he recognized (and loved) the wine that Rachel had brought and the two struck up a conversation. Before long, the conversation turned to Rachel needing to find a new chef for her French concept, which is when her new friend informed her that his sous chef was outgrowing her position at the restaurant and might be the perfect fit for Quenelle, as she was versed in a number of different cuisines. The chef in question? Her name is Abby Fleury.

“I was told to call Rachel the next morning at 10am,” said Abby. “I didn’t want to seem to anxious, so I called at 10:01am [laughing]. I hadn’t thought about leaving my position at the country club where I was working, but my mentor/chef said that I should take the position. Meeting Rachel and Leacel was very organic. I worked in the country club realm for about seven years. I had to learn all sorts of cuisines. And now I’ve been revisiting French cuisine, in the classic Lyonnaise style.”

Visiting the Eiffel Tower – (L-R) Abby Fleury, Rachel Herman-Gross, and Leacel Hillenbrand

In order to truly experience the basis and heart of French dining, Rachel, Leacel, and Abby headed to Lyon, France, where they immersed themselves in the culture and cuisine for two solid weeks, eating three full course meals a day. Some say that the city of Lyon – known by many as home to quenelle – is the undisputed gastronomical capital of France.

When they returned to Buffalo, the trio set about creating the ultimate French menu, while modernizing it just a bit for the American palate.

“It’s going to be a la carte, with a couple of dishes in the canon that are lighter, such as a quenelle and a salad” said Rachel. “There will be room to cater to a broad array of palates – to create your own three course meal. Unlike traditional French food, there will be some vegetarian and gluten free items. You won’t see that in France [laughing].”

“We’ll be serving up steak frites, steak tartare, different variations of coq au vin, including one that’s a lighter variation from Jura, France, with white wine mushrooms crème fraîche,” Abby noted. “There will be traditional French dishes, and a late night menu.”

“Quenelle will be a great place for those that want amazing French cuisine, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t come in after a Sabres’ game,” said Leacel. “Rue Franklin was a place known to get dressed up and head out for a special occasion. We won’t have tablecloths – we want everyone to feel comfortable, no matter where they are coming from, or how they are dressed.”

The bar, headed up by Esmay Kim, formerly of INIZIO, will reflect the food service with a full cocktail menu and well-versed classics. There will even be an NA cocktail program, “because it’s very important to be inclusive at every step.” Seasonal French wines will play center court, with a full range of glass pours from different regions. There will even be by-the-glass Champagne options (heavily rotating), as the owners build their bottle list.

As for the layout of Quenelle, it will be much the same as “The Rue,” although the middle bar room area will be a bit different as they are blowing out the back bar to build an ADA accessible bathroom. They are also doing away with the coat room, where craftsman Brian Wilcox will build an extended horseshoe-shaped bar. He is also building banquette seating in the front room, along with custom tabletops. The gorgeous courtyard will be making its return, with some functional updates, including lounge seating on either side of the restored fountain. The beloved garden patio will, once again be open for dining, as well as cocktailing.

The operational hours at Quenelle will be: open at 4pm, kitchen starts at 5pm, with full dinner service to 10pm, and then late night menu until 1pm. The restaurant, to start, will be closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and there will be no late night menu on Sundays. Music played will range from French classics to French hip-hop.

At this point, Rachel and Leacel are simply saying that, while Quenelle has no official opening date, they expect to “see you this summer!”

Quenelle | 341 Franklin St. Buffalo, NY 14204 | Facebook | Instagram

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