Tersiguel's puts twist on French classics

Sun Restaurant Critic

Tersiguel's in Ellicott City has always been one of our serious French restaurants (as opposed to a bistro or cafe) - one of the few left after Jeannier's closed. For years diners have been able to count on getting classics like foie gras or bearnaise sauce there in a decidedly nonhip but pleasing setting, with formal but not stuffy service.

Since I last ate at Tersiguel's, though, there have been changes. The original owner/chef Fernand Tersiguel is semi-retired, and his son Michel has taken over as executive chef. Michel's cooking experience includes time spent on the West Coast, and you can see elements of it in his cuisine. At least I'm assuming that's where dishes like chicken with lemongrass, star anise oil and basmati rice comes from, or the coquille St. Jacques, which doesn't bear even a faint resemblance to the traditional recipe.

There's some excitement to this menu, in other words, but not to worry. You can still cozy up to old favorites like ris de veau (sweetbreads) cardinale or filet mignon with a cognac demi-glace.

Tersiguel's menu may hold a surprise or two, but the setting is as I remember it: a handsome 19th century white clapboard house in Ellicott City's historic district that was the home of the first mayor. There are six dining rooms in all; we were seated in one of the front ones, crowded with antiques, photographs, knickknacks and Quimper ware on display. It's a pretty, old fashioned room, barely large enough to hold five or six tables set with white linen and colorful pottery chargers.

The wait staff manage to weave themselves around the tables quite adroitly, and on the whole the service was attentive, although slower than we would have liked on a weeknight. Our waiter was unexpectedly knowledgeable about the food, mostly because he had been a chef himself in a past life. His familiarity with the extensive wine list (mostly French bottles) was impressive, too.

The food, on the whole, was as good as I remembered it. Sometimes on this latest visit a new-fangled dish more than held its own against the classics. The coquille St. Jacques' large diver sea scallops benefited from the fruity but not sweet passion fruit vinaigrette, and the bright red beet risotto that came with them was intensely flavorful. Steamed broccolini and cauliflower completed a visually stunning plate.

Duck done two ways -- a crisp-skinned leg confit and slices of rare breast -- was shown off to good effect with fig sauce, a wild rice pancake, and broccolini.

Sometimes new isn't necessarily better. A salad of frisee and fennel crescents garnished with miniature cantaloupe balls and sliced grapes was topped with pieces of John Dory (a flat saltwater fish), battered and fried. It was better than it sounds, but the elements never quite came together.

It made me appreciate all the more a truly spectacular selection of hot hors d'oeuvres for two, many of which can be had separately. Mussels luxuriated in a mild curry-coconut milk broth at the center of the plate, and tucked under the edges of the bowl -- almost out of sight -- were marvelously buttery, garlicky escargots and tender pink shrimp. Clams steamed in their shells were just as good, as was the calamari fried in a semolina and cornmeal batter. And one of my favorites on the plate was the homemade fennel-laced sausage. Each element was better than the last.

Crepes seem to be a specialite de la maison; at least several of the first courses start with a buckwheat crepe. They would taste good filled with ball bearings, but when you top them with thin slices of house-smoked salmon, a bit of cream cheese and a caper or two, they are out of this world.

There are pitfalls lurking in the menu. "Pan-roasted regional salmon" turned out to be Irish blue trout the evening we were there, which was fine except it was badly oversalted -- the only evidence of that particular misstep in our meal. The moist pink fillet lay on a puree of garden peas, with white asparagus, poached purple potatoes and fried salsify as a garnish. (Someone in the kitchen just likes fried foods, I guess. I can't complain about that, although sometimes they seem a little random.)

Ask before you order the market-priced viande du marche or you may get sticker shock. This evening it was a rib eye served tableside with demi-glace and bearnaise, and it cost $39, significantly more than most of the other entrees.

Desserts are very French, such as chocolate mousse, creme caramel, a tarte tatin made with pear. There are fine homemade ice creams, and much as I hate to praise a creme brulee (I've overdosed on them), Tersiguel's coffee creme brulee is good enough to make strong men weep.

If any restaurant has stood the test of time, it's Tersiguel's, which has been remarkably consistent over the years. It's probably good for the survival of the restaurant that the next generation is bringing new ingredients and techniques into the kitchen, but it's still hard to beat the restaurant's traditional, full-fat version of French food.

Food *** (3 stars)
Service *** (3 stars)
Atmosphere *** (3 stars)
Address: 8293 Main St., Ellicott City
Prices: Appetizers, $7.95-$17.95; main courses, $24.95-$39.95
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily
Call: 410-465-4004


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