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.

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