Tuna may be treated carpaccio style. There may be shiitake mushrooms in the sauce that graces the veal and lemon grass and coconut milk in the garnish for the salmon. But Tersiguel's is a French restaurant – French "country" restaurant to be precise. Always has been, always will be. That was true when founder Fernand Tersiguel and his wife, Odette, did kitchen and hosting duty, and is still true now that son Michel (a classically trained French chef) and his wife, Angie, have taken up the toques.
Since French cuisine is among our favorites because of its subtle complexities, four of us anticipated our retro-visit to Tersiguel's in Ellicott City on a recent Thursday. It has arguably been a decade or more since we'd been to that spiffed-up white house on Main Street, the one that in the 19th century belonged to a dentist, who was also mayor of the town.
We were seated in the Brittany Room (Bretagne, if you're French). High ceilings and (non-working) fireplace notwithstanding, this intimate little dining area boasts a mere five tables, mostly for four. Walls are cream over, and dove Grey under, the chair rail. Vintage black and white photos grace the walls. And linens are white over blue, with white napkins. No acrylic or glass "covers" to protect the linens from spills. Just a sweet little candlelit boudoir lamp with a deep green shade, and places marked by colorful chargers with impressionistic flowers painted on them.
It's quiet and relaxing within, with a view of the Main Street bustle through the tall stately windows.
If memory serves, the menu is — how you say — the same, but different. A few of the elements we enjoyed then — like Odette's pate de champagne and escargots de Bourgogne (snails, Burgundy style) — are still available. And, indeed, chef/owner Michel Tersiguel has actually brought back other classic French regional dishes, like beef Bourguignonne, frog legs Provencal and cassoulet Carcassonne.
But many offerings reflect updated approaches (with concomitant updated prices). Thus, socca Nicoise ($10.95) is an appetizer featuring a chick pea crepe with goat cheese and a tapenade (olives) and roasted pepper salad. And the poulet en "croute" ($28.95) is a main dish boasting a chicken fricassee with wild mushrooms and veggies encrusted in a buckwheat crepe.
The menu is appetizingly descriptive and generous in scope. While you decide, the impeccably clad and polite wait staff will proffer an "amuse bouche," this night featuring a warm relish of finely chopped eggplant and onions enlivened with fresh basil and served with housemade croutons for spreading. Not to mention the wonderful French bread (served one piece at a time) and sweet butter also provided to stave off initial hunger pangs.
Appetizers here can make a gratifying first impression. The saucisse grillee Alsacienne ($9.95), featuring tender-chewy, flavorful housemade sausages and a warm potato salad on the side was rated "the best" combination "ever" by one of my guests. And that's not even counting the radicchio and onion slices that garnished the plate.
The salade frisee ($9.95) was an ample serving of crisp frisee lettuce with a warm dressing of lightly fried duck fat and tangy, earthy goat cheese.
Odette's pate de champagne ($9.95) was as good as we remembered. A nice slab (about 4-by- 2 inches and a half-inch thick) of liver loaf was fragrant and tender yet with some chew to it. Arugula, radicchio and olives accompanied. Plus cornichons, of course. And mustard, provided by our server.
Our seafood lover opted to appetize on the thon (tuna) — $10.95. Called carpaccio in Italian and sushi-style at other eateries, the lightly seared sliced tuna melted in the mouth and contrasted nicely with the oven-dried tomatoes drizzled with tapenade-laced oil and the peppery arugula on the side
There's a prix fixe menu at Tersiguel's ($21.95 at lunch, $38.95 at dinner), but we were all in an independent mood, each wanting to sample different dishes. Thus, entrees included a couple of menu regulars (although the menu undergoes some changes several times a year), and a couple of chef's specials (du jour).
Among menu regulars is a filet mignon Rossini ma facon ($38.95). The pan seared beef was easily two inches high at its thickest, drizzled with truffle oil and sided by rich, duck-liver mashed potatoes (a bit salty) and crisp-tender green beans. The meat was ordered medium-rare, but arrived rare, and was a bit chewy.
Agneau (lamb) — $35.95 — was grilled, sliced New Zealand loin done perfectly medium-rare with a blow-you-away bleu cheese sauce. On the side, risotto-style rye (looks like barley, tastes wheat-y), buttery and chewy (good chewy), plus some tender-crisp whole baby carrots, Brussels sprouts and green beans, plus a few pear slices poached in red wine. A satisfying combination, and one that reflects the kitchen's attention to detail and the fact that each entree was accompanied by its own individually designed side offerings and garnishes.
As to the specials, one was a combination of flat iron steak and a beef short rib, prepared tableside ($38.95). Our servers rolled out a two-burner hot plate and basically reheated the tender-chewy steak and large, even-more-tender rib. Side dishes included a mélange of carrots and zucchini, plus a petite casserole dish filled with hot, creamy, rich potatoes dauphinois.
While both beef eaters enjoyed their meats for the most part, they needed to be reminded that Tersiguel's is not actually a steak house.
Finally, a second special — the monkfish ($33.95). The generous "poor man's lobster" (fillet) was perfectly cooked to a tender finish, and accompanied by a sweet salsa dunking sauce, as well as thin asparagus spears and red-skin potato wedges.
There was absolutely no room for dessert, but we shared a pair anyway. Crème caramel au café ($6.75) was a cool, dark, comforting custard, with an equally dark coffee-laced sauce and lovely, fresh raspberries on top.
The seasonal fruit tart ($7.95) featured a crisp homemade tart shell, creamy filing and humongous, perfect, fresh blackberries, plus strawberry swirls on the plate and gorgeous whipped cream on top. Oh, and a fresh mint sprig adding to the ambience.
Julia Child, Craig Claiborne and other world-renowned chefs introduced us Philistines (cream of mushroom soup, Velveeta and white bread) to the glories of French cooking. In their way, the Tersiguel family has tastefully carried on the campaign. Their original French restaurant, Chez Fernand, opened in 1975 further down on Main Street. After a fire gutted the eatery, they moved to Baltimore, but returned to their current location in 1990. Fernand and Odette are now retired and son Michel (a 1984 CIA —Culinary Institute of America — graduate) and his wife, Angie, carry on the traditions, bringing hard work and delicious creativity to the endeavor.
With emphasis on the classics, as well as an eye toward fresh local ingredients, Michel serves as executive chef, while Petr Hoffman, who's been with the Tersiguel's off and on since 1988, now serves as sous chef. To procure the best, freshest ingredients, the Tersiguels own a farm in the county, and also visit local markets every day with an eye toward supplying regular menu dishes, as well as daily specials.
July 14, Bastille Day (aka French Independence Day), also marks the debut of the original Main Street Chez Fernand. While no special events are being planned, the family will host regular diners and newcomers to Tersiguel's with sparkling wine toasts throughout the day.
Tersiguel's French Country Restaurant (410-465-4004), 8293 Main St., Ellicott City. Classic French cuisine along with creative updates. Professionally and cordially served in seven small dining rooms that total 140-150 seats. Special events facilities.
Prix fixe lunches and dinners. Daily nine-course chef's choice menu available; call for information. Reservations recommended. Go to Tersiguels.com.