West of Provence in the region known as Languedoc Roussillon, wherein lies the city of Montpellier. It is a good-sized town (close to 250, 000 inhabitants), and the old section, with its charming narrow streets and elegant buildings sporting balconies adorned with wrought iron, is well worth a visit. The new parts are of little interest, but Vieux Montpellier has been considerably spiffed up of late. Most tourists (American, especially) seem to have a Provencal fixation. They crowd the motorways of that glorious region with their damned RV's, straining the patience on the twisty country roads. Montpellier is not exactly high on any foreigner's must-do list. It seems blessedly free of touristic hordes, though during the summer it reportedly gets its fair share of gawkers. From the shaded Promenade du Peyrou, there is a seeping view to the West. There is an Arc de Triomophe where one enters Vieux Montpellier. The Cathedral of St-Pierre and the lovely church of Sainte-Anne flank the arc off to the right and to the left. The Place de Comedie is an impressively grand space, quite open and lined with bustling cafes and cinemas. A promenade up the Esplanade Charles De Gaulle before dinner is highly recommended. You may ask why tattoo parlors, bridal shops and Irish pubs appear in large numbers in Montpellier. Porquoi pas?
One obvious reason to make Montpellier a preferred destination is the presence of Le Jardin des Sens. A Relais and Chateaux property, it is the only three star restaurant (according to Michelin) in the region. We almost drove past it. It is certainly unimposing from the road and verges on the downright ugly. The neighborhood is completely nondescript too. Once parked (across the street), however, one enters a refined world of modernism. Amusing furniture, oddly placed paintings, clean lines and lots of glass make up the reception and lounge areas. The interior decorator has an obvious sense of humor. The contemporary dining room is on three levels, affording every diner a view of the enchanting walled garden (complete with bamboo clumps). The bedrooms (14 in all) are spare, but lavishly well-equipped in the Relais and Chateaux manner. The reception is incredibly friendly and warm. I have been in some Relais and Chateaux establishments (let's not mention names) where the attitude ranged from haughty to snooty. Not so here at Le Jardin des Sens, a veritable garden for the senses.
Dinner at Le Jardin des Sens was slightly uneven, but the high points were truly special. In the kitchen are brothers Jacques and Laurent Pourcel, certainly the only twins so highly regarded by the men from Michelin. Their mother, Mrs. Pourcel, would no doubt earn a two star rating on uniqueness alone. The best plates were a marvelously tender fois gras a citron, with a sauce distilled from red wine and the main dish of pigeon pastilla. It was served sliced, accompanied by heavenly mashed potatoes and a dark sauce containing cocoa. Yes, cocoa. Tres moderne. Previously, there was a misguided courgette flower in broth stuffed with a most curious texture. Soft and spongy was the langoustine mousse, like a bath sponge. The foamy truffle broth, with beans in the bottom was exceptional, however. A lobster salad was served on a bed of fresh spinach, wrapped in a crisp pastry reminiscent of an old-fashioned egg-roll. It was a trifle sweet, however. A filet de loup was quite fine with morille mushrooms, spears of fried asparagus (rather burned) and a shaved sliver of Parmesan to top it all off. The pre-appetizers were all tasty…a fried ball of ground pork with its own tartare sauce, sea snail with herbs, cherry tomato stuffed with chevre, The cheese tray was a marvel, and the fantastic local products were creamy and ever so fresh.
Desserts were also good, but not great. An eggshell was presented, stuffed with raspberry cream and mint mousse on top. Strawberries (isn't it a bit early for truly ripe ones?) adorned a rather bland pastry, a galette made from semolina. The individual chocolate tarte was quite rich and fudgy. The petites-fors were standard. A most pleasant dining experience overall, but one that gives rise to déjà vu. Not really the innovative juice one is expecting from a three star chef(s). Maybe four hands aren't better than two. They did not tour the dining room as customary, but maybe the Pourcel brothers are shy. Hopefully, they weren't on the road doing a cookbook tour. It was a fine meal, but the few missteps (easily righted) were hard to ignore considering the reputation of Le Jardin des Sens and the level of expectation. Lunch can be had for 200FR, while dinner menus range from 400FR to 600FR.
Nearby excursions can be made to the seashore resort of La Grande-Motte and the fascinating walled town of Aigues-Mortes. That means "dead water." Charming, n'est pas. Ignore the name and visit the unique place. Though not as dramatically situated as Carcassonne, Aigues-Mortes is quite special. Take the elevator to the top of the lighthouse, the tour de Constance, to get a view of the town within the still-standing13th century ramparts. Try it on a weekday, as it was crowded on a Sunday (even in the rain). It's only a short drive from Le Jardin de Sens, so you can return to linger over a decadent lunch at the thoroughly modern jewel of Montpellier.
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