English hunting scenes on the walls of a new Frenc restaurant? Our waiter explained: Tersiguel's is Fernand Tersiguel's last venture, and his wife, Odette, always wanted an English hunting room. The motif is for her. Across the hall, in a room dedicated to Fernand's native Brittany, there are Quimper plates and Breton scenes; upstairs rooms take as their focus the Tersiguels' churches, the restaurants in their lives, and regions of France. While a "one-last-time" exercise could become overblown, Tersiguel's feels dignified, serious, charming and destined for a long and healthy life.
DTC It is housed in a carefully restored, freshly painted, whitthree-story clapboard structure, the Main Street home of Ellicott City's mayor at the end of the last century. Black Victorian double front doors lead to a small vestibule. This opens onto a hallway that connects a bar and two dining rooms with the kitchen, and includes a stairway to dining rooms upstairs.
The menu lists a number of bistro-style dishes that Americans reliably like: snails in garlic butter ($5.25), onion soup ($3.95), vichyssoise ($3.25), grilled sausage ($10.95), duck with orange sauce ($13.95) and crepes suzettes ($6.95).
For our meal, three of us ordered Brittany fish soup ($6.95), pate maison ($4.25) and scallops in wine sauce ($7.95) for first courses. Our entrees were Cornish hen with wine sauce, onions and mushrooms ($16.95), sweetbreads with shrimp sauce ($19.95) and a special of marinated swordfish ($19.95).
The fish soup was served dramatically in a beautiful silver terrine, fitted with a silver cover, raised and whisked away at an appropriate moment. It looked glorious. In a pale broth, there were blades of carrot and particles of tomato and onion, as well as large scallops, squares of white fish, shrimp, mussels and clams. Why then did the liquid taste so dull? (To be fair: Two of us disliked it, and one of us, neither the writer nor the eater, thought it palatable.) Salt helped, but didn't effect a transformation, nor did accompanying croutons and shredded Gruyere cheese.
On the other hand, the pate was marvelous: a coarse, cheerful picnic pate, vibrantly seasoned, and bound with just enough fat to give coherence and flavor. The house rolls were in the same league. Tersiguel's pate on Tersiguel's bread would make a perfect terrace cafe summer lunch.
On an entirely different level of formality, five delicate, plain large scallops were set in a thin pool of well-modulated Nantua sauce composed in part of cream and shrimp essence. It was an excellent and delicious composition.
Two of our entrees lacked the lustrous juiciness of meats cooked at the moment, to order, but they were pleasant, and a fish entree was first-class. I expected "Cornish hen grand mere with wine sauce, onions and mushrooms" ($16.95) to be a gentle chicken stew or fricassee, and was therefore surprised to receive two halves of roasted Cornish hen, on the edge of dry, over an essence-of-chicken sauce, without onions or mushrooms. Accompaniments were circles of sweet, fresh carrots and a heap of what looked like croutons. Croutons? They turned out to be tiny squares of deep-fried potato -- a nice idea, but they were awkward to maneuver with a knife and fork.
Sauteed sweetbreads, or riz de veau Nantua ($19.95), were plain and also somewhat dry, but enhanced by an attractively spare quantity of shrimp sauce, part cream. They, too, came with potatoes and carrots.
A special of swordfish ($19.95) was moist and appetizing,
glossed with spoonings of oil and vinegar mixed with fresh herbs, chopped tomato, onion and cucumber. The cooking of the fish had been scrupulously timed; the flesh was succulent and appealing.
I find high-style French buttercream cakes a pleasure with coffee or tea, but incongruous after fish soup and sweetbreads. Both a Grand Marnier cake ($4.25) and a chocolate ganache cake ($4.25) were fluffy and tall, fresh and of fine quality. Nonetheless, we liked best a simple creme brulee that set a thin, crackly sheet of melted, cooled sugar over a smooth custard.
Throughout our meal, the staff impressed us by handling the room well on a busy night. We were given a reasonable amount of time to consider our choices, dishes appeared at a sensible pace, we were not harassed with meaningless attentions, we were given competent wine advice, and waiters remained anonymous and dignified.
(P.S.: Mr. Tersiguel has maintained no connections with his previous restaurant, Chez Fernand, which is now in new hands.) *
Next: Moscow Nights
Tersiguel's, 8293 Main St., Ellicott City, 465-4004
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily; dinner 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays, until 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Accepts: ** /- *
Features: French cuisine
No-smoking area: Yes
Wheelchair access: No