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Fine diner food with a Dutch twist in Penfield

Rene's Café 

René's Café, 617 Whitney Rd., Fairport, 388-7480, www2.renescafe.com. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m.-2 p.m.; Sunday, 8 a.m.-1:30 p.m.

Rene's: Dutch treat in Penfield

René Kuilman always knew what he wanted to do. At 13, he worked in a pizza shop, and was, he says, "bitten by the bug." If it bites you slinging pies, you've got it bad, and Kuilman pursued his avocation with single-mindedness: he studied food service at BOCES, served food in the army, then attended the Culinary Institute of America. While studying there, he interned at a French restaurant in Holland.

Back in Rochester, Kuilman was executive chef at the Country Club of Rochester for a decade, and spent three years at the Rochester Yacht Club. After an unsatisfying stint in food sales, he wanted to return to cooking, but says, "I just didn't want to do the country club scene." He was imagining a unique diner, one that would incorporate his Dutch heritage a bit.

Kuilman thought he'd found a spot in Greece, but the deal fell through. Then one day he drove by the former Joey B's location and saw that it was available. Joe Brophy gave him the keys to check it out, and he never gave them back.

"It was a mess when we came in," he says, "but my buddy, Bob, had just gotten laid off from Kodak. He's a pipe-fitter by trade, and he can do anything." The two went from concept to opening in 45 days. The old Joey B's had a kind of ramshackle charm, but René's is bright, clean, and cheerful.

With more restaurants competing for fewer dollars, it's essential to find a viable niche. Like Rick Stewart at Fishers Station and Jerry Manley at Flour City Diner, Kuilman is looking for that viability in upscale diner food. So, sure, you can get toast, eggs, and breakfast meat ($4.95), but it's fabulous bacon or sausage from Swan's Market. I dug the seven-layer breakfast, with cheese, egg, bacon, sausage, onion, and garlic baked over home fries ($5.95 with biscuits or toast).

Kuilman's breads come from Petrillo's, but he also does some baking. The biscuits are small and delicious; you get a pair with most breakfasts or buy them for 50 cents each. I missed the olliebollen, a Dutch, apple-raisin doughnut coated with powdered sugar ($1.50 for three).

Lunch features soups, salads, and sandwiches, but again with upscale and Dutch flare. Many dishes, including the five-onion soup, come with Gouda cheese. My Manhattan clam chowder was decent if a bit salty.

Kuilman lights up when talking about his chicken croquettes and crab cakes. Are chicken croquettes available anywhere else in town? They come garnished with cucumber and mustard for $4.25; the crab cakes either in salad ($8.95) or as a "po' boy" ($8.25). I had the po' boy, and loved the cakes, though the small, thick slices of French bread made it a bit tough to eat. Next time, I'd get the salad.

Another bit of ethnicity is "Dutch hot brown," open-faced toast with sliced turkey, topped with Gouda sauce, sautéed mushrooms, and bacon ($6.50). My wife, Anne, had Rene's Reuben, also served open face ($6.50). You can get it with turkey or corned beef (both cooked at Rene's), and kraut or cole slaw. Anne went with turkey and cole slaw, and it was dynamite.

There are tons of choices: two sizes of burger (5 oz. for $4.50 or 8 oz. for $6.50), New Orleans muffuletta wrap ($6.50), a sinful Argentine club (roast beef, horseradish, bacon, lettuce, and tomato, $6.50), and a host of deli sandwiches. Sandwiches come with chips, or add soup or outstanding fries for $1.50.

"Save room for dessert," as the menu says. My family of five shared one piece of chocolate cake, and it sufficed. "I put as much chocolate in as I possibly can," Kuilman says, "so I cut the cake in three slices to make an extra layer." It's huge, rich, and wonderful.

René Kuilman thinks people will spend more for quality, and the place was hopping during my visits. Sandy, his head waitress, keeps it smooth even when the place is slammed. My family went at the worst possible time, 12:30 on a Friday, and she handled us beautifully. And the quality is there. Kuilman wants to grow into more catering, and wants his employees to be able to grow with him. He's well on the way.


Food tip

In July, Debra Sheen transformed Affaire de Chocolat into a retail operation in East Rochester (226 West Commercial St.). She makes chocolate roses, truffles, and much more. Only an independent business could set up hours like this: Wednesdays and Fridays, 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m. But she's often there other days; just call first. 387-9111, or www.AffairedeChocolat.com.

--- Michael Warren Thomas of www.SavorLife.com

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