Restaurants: Matchless cuisine

There's football in Montpellier, but it's not the only game in town, says Margaret Kemp

Sun-starved Parisians heading south for the summer take one of two routes: east to Provence and the Cote d'Azur, or west to Nimes, Marseilles and the unspoiled Languedoc coast. This is where the sights and sounds of the south of France begin. Now, for the first time in its colourful history, the Languedoc region has a three- star Michelin restaurant and hotel - Le Jardin des Sens - owned by identical twins Laurent and Jacques Pourcel.

Although the highway is well sign-posted, you will not be the first guest to drive on by. The ugly square terracotta and grey stone building of Le Jardin des Sens stands on the corner of a busy road - a tennis club on one side, a video store on the other. In the car park, two Lamborghinis sit side by side. Do they belong to guests or is business booming for the Pourcels? Inside, a receptionist greets my French connection, Pierre- Etienne, and me with a Novocaine expression. "Ah, if we owned the Lamborghini the welcome would be warmer," sighs Pierre-Etienne, pocketing the keys to his Renault 5.

The Jardin's action takes place around a fragrant herb garden with olive trees, a fountain and a mini-vineyard. On the roof, Bruno Borrione (who also worked on the Paramount and Royalton, New York and the Delano, Miami) has designed a neat swimming-pool. When I venture up to take a dip, a gold-chained guy is nibbling a gorgeous girl in a tiny bikini. Definitely the Lamborghini owner.

The restaurant of Le Jardin des Sens has a buzz of informality not usually associated with Michelin three-stars. Dishes are presented with the minimum of fuss; not a silver cloche in sight. Ten years ago, there were just 12 dishes on offer. Now, as we study the weighty menu, a multitude of titbits arrive: a marmelade of sardines with a mousse of aubergines and a creamy miniature risotto with tiny asparagus. Square-fried croquettes of pig's feet astonish Pierre-Etienne, whose mother once owned a restaurant in Lyon. "The batter is 'eavy," he sighs. I remember my mother's credo that everybody's troubles begin with their feet.

After much deliberation, and a bottle of Cabardes red from the nearby vineyards of Adrian Mould, we finally choose. A raw tete-de-veau marinated in local olive oil, cut paper thin, is almost transparent on the chilled glass plate. My Bouzigues oysters (also local and rather salty) are mixed with crab, sitting in its shell. A crunchy fennel cream with a hint of tomato gives the impression of an upmarket prawn cocktail, with notes of aniseed.

A warm salad of Languedoc supions (squid) is perfumed with thyme and fresh pasta served with warm fig, nut and cereal breads. The squid is slightly gritty but was plucked from the sea this morning. Pierre-Etienne savours his souffle-like concoction of petits gris (snails) studded with dried fruits and potatoes, moistened with an emulsion of Montpellier butter. The flavours are rich, light, and reflect the warmth of the South. Baudroie (tiny local monkfish), lightly fried and roasted with sun-dried tomatoes and sweet onions, arrive gleaming with olive oil on a thin flaky pastry base, surrounded with dabs of thyme juice. Who cares about tickets to the World Cup when you can eat like this? Next, thin discs of lobster top herb ravioli with young leeks in a creamy basil vinaigrette. We have not ordered this, but tiny freebies keep arriving. All the china is different, some glass, some bone, some looking as if it's been made by schoolchildren. The overall feeling is of young talent and exciting modern interpretations.

For main courses, my pink-fleshed roasted pigeon must have had a happy and very short life. The bird's roughly chopped giblets are baked into tiny cakes seasoned with curry; quarters of fresh pear refresh the palate; the surrounding juice suggests bitter chocolate. Pierre-Etienne's veal kidneys, cooked in their own fat, seem dangerously rare, but he's French and fearless when it comes to glands. Shallots preserved in old Port, celery and a chanterelle pancake complete this woodland setting.

No room for cheese, but one can always rise to the finale. The desserts change twice daily according to Jacques Pourcel's inspiration. We taste figs and caramel with a feather-light rice and buttermilk ice cream, the effect almost nursery like; a delightfully frothy chocolate soup, with pistachios and tiny scrolls of Valhrona chocolate. Grainy mint, herb and fruit sorbets are an astringent prelude to a molten hot dessert (fondant au chocolat chaud), neither cake nor souffle, but from some delightful never-never land in between.

So how do the new kids stack up against France's 23 three-stars, including the traditional Paul Bocuse and the avant-garde Pierre Gagnaire? It has to be said the Pourcels' dishes are original; their dedication more than enough to satisfy the monks at Michelin. And prices are low. Lunch is a steal at 190 francs, and the well-chosen wines are reasonably priced.

It is very late, and the triple-crowned twins appear in a distant doorway. Pierre-Etienne heads them off at the pass and speaks to them in their own language. The brothers admit they are puzzled that they, and not other, older and more experienced chefs such as Alain Dutornier and Guy Savoy in Paris, or Olivier Roellinger in Brittany, were so honoured by Michelin. "But if you put our ages together we are 66 years old," they smile. Pierre- Etienne teases them about the Lamborghinis. "Beautiful works of art but no use to us," they insist. "Not enough room in the boot for market shopping!"

Le Jardin des Sens, 11 avenue Saint-Lazaire - 34000 Montpellier (tel: 00 33

4 67 79 63 38; fax: 00 33 4 67 72 13 05). Lunch, Ff 190 (weekdays only), dinner Ff 550 plus wine. Hotel 13 rooms and one suite from 800 -2,200 francs. World Cup France 98 matches will be played at Stade de La Mosson, Montpellier from 10 June.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

    £18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

    £20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

    Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?