Food just sounds better in French. Here's a slice of Tersiguel's menu: Choucroute Garnie a L'Ascacienne, Cassoulet Carcassonne, Coquilles St. Jacques and Boeuf a la Bourguignonne. Even huitres sound more appetizing than oysters.
At Tersiguel's, you'll be feeling wonderful before you even see the menu. There aren't many restaurants around as deeply and sincerely pretty as Odette and Fernand Tersiguel's bastion of fine dining, which since 1990 has occupied the whole of a 19th-century townhouse on Ellicott City's Main Street.
Twenty-two years later, Tersiguel's is enduring beautifully. Eight rooms arrange themselves around a central staircase. The small Ellicott Room upstairs is hung with historic pictures and paintings of Ellicott City. The popular first-floor Hunt Room is a plant-filled atrium decorated with the art of the hunt. We got no farther than the Brittany Room, a serene space decorated with mementos, paintings, ceramics and travel posters all extolling the history and culture of Odette and Fernand's native Brittany.
I'd forgotten how nice it is to fortify yourself, before even seeing a menu, with an aperitif — perhaps a ruby-red Lillet, a milky white Pernod or a bracing cidre bouche made with apples from the family's Howard County farm. It's a pleasurable way to settle into an evening.
These are interesting times at Tersiguel's. Sometimes the food suggests a preparation that Bretons have been casually mastering for centuries. Other times, as with a splendid salad gourmande of figs and Morbier cheese, there's a more contemporary sensibility at play.
This alliance of old and new is the work of Michel Tersiguel, who began training for a restaurant life long before his formal education at the Culinary Institute of Art in Hyde Park, N.Y., at Chez Fernand, his family's first Ellicott City restaurant, which was destroyed by fire in 1984. There was then a Chez Fernand in Baltimore that the Tersiguels operated near the Shot Tower until 1990, when they moved back to Main Street.
Longtime patrons still get the classics they look forward to, without frills. These include exemplary escargot, baked in real butter, good garlic and white wine, and a no-nonsense pate de campagne from a family recipe. It's nice to be surprised, too. A strong, garlicky Brittany fish soup, garnished with Swiss cheese, which you'd assume was an heirloom recipe, turned out to be Michel's new twist on the classic
To Tersiguel's, Michel has introduced seasonal menus, a thing that was unheard of by his parents' generation, but which feels perfectly natural in a French country restaurant. Why not welcome fall with cassoulet, duck confit and choucroute garnie, a traditional stew of sauerkraut, sausages and smoked pork.
Served with a luscious pumpkin polenta and complemented by a finely tuned honey-garlic gastrique, the perfectly handled duck confit was a delight. In fall, Tersiguel serves the fish of the day — fluke, when we visited — with a perky and vivid tomato coulis and a puree of seasonal vegetables. At our dinner, this was rutabaga. I liked how its slight bitterness played off the mild flavor of the fish. The whole fish had a slightly standoffish quality that I found myself admiring. I like how it didn't need to be loved.
But I did want the beef bourguignon to try harder, to have a richer, winy flavor, and for the chunks of beef to have a slightly crispy crust.
There was, overpoweringly, something — a herb or a spice —that none of us liked at all in the cassoulet, a classic white bean stew to which Tersiguel's adds pork, lamb, duck and sausages. What it was, and whether it was intentional, we'll never know.
At the end of your meal, there are Tersiguel classics like chocolate mousse, flourless chocolate cake, creme brulee and crepes Suzette, which are still prepared tableside. There are also homemade ice creams and sorbets, and our fortunate choice, a velvety and mildly sweet goat cheese "cheesecake" served with a stone-fruit compote.
Come prepared with good conversation. The gracious pace established at the beginning is sustained throughout the meal. If the young service staff lacks the tableside authority that comes with age, they compensate with attentiveness. And they've been trained not to rush things.
Your good mood will abide a fizzle or two, even a cassoulet you weren't expecting to be so — what's the French term? Ah, of course: so very funky.
Tersiguel's French Country Restaurant
Where: 8293 Main St., Ellicott City
Contact: 410-465-4004, http://www.tersiguels.com
Open: Daily for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers $9.95-$12.95, entrees $26.95-$35.95
Food: Classic French country cuisine, with seasonal and contemporary adaptations
Service: Young, attentive and well-intentioned
Best dishes: Escargots de Bourgogne, Brittany fish soup, duck legs confit
Parking: On-street metered parking and public lots
Reservations: Recommended for all parties at all times
Noise: Blissfully hushed
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