A Delight for the Senses
Languedoc's Only Three-Star Restaurant Is a Culinary Oasis in the Heart of Montpellier
By William Echikson
When twins Jacques and Laurent Pourcel were growing up, they hated wine. Their father was a vigneron, and like most Languedoc growers, the Pourcels say, he made "ordinary table wine." As teenagers, Jacques and Laurent developed asthma and became allergic to the pesticides used in the vineyards. "Both of us just wanted to get as far away as possible from grapes," recalls Jacques.
Today, the Pourcels preside over Languedoc's most celebrated kitchen: Jardin des Sens, which boasts a 1,200-selection wine list and a 72,000-bottle cellar. The two 35-year-old chefs are no longer are allergic to vines, and they have purchased -- along with their partner, 33-year-old maître d'hôtel and sommelier Olivier Chateau -- a 32-hectare vineyard northwest of Montpellier, from which they aim to produce top-quality Syrah- and Grenache-based reds. "When we stop cooking, we want to become full-time winegrowers," says Jacques.
The Pourcels' newfound love affair with wine accompanies the rise of Languedoc winemaking -- as well as their own swift move up the culinary hierarchy. In 1997, they achieved the ultimate gastronomic honor, with three stars in France's venerated Michelin guide.
"We learned about wine when we apprenticed at great restaurants," Jacques explains. The twins left home at age 15 to attend hotel school in Languedoc's capital, Montpellier. After graduation, they interned at a series of Michelin-starred shrines: Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Chapel, Michel Bras, Michel Trama and, most importantly, Marc Meneau's L'Espérance, located in the heart of Burgundy. "We tasted some great bottles there," says Jacques.
In 1988, the twins returned to Languedoc to strike out on their own. During their absence, Montpellier had been transformed into a vibrant economic center, drawing on its strong universities to attract high-tech stalwarts such as IBM. "The clientele was waiting for a good restaurant," says Chateau, who met the Pourcels when he worked as a waiter at Michel Trama's restaurant. The three young partners bought an abandoned house in a less-than-desirable downtown residential area, near train tracks. "We were like squatters," Chateau recalls.
The Pourcels' cooking quickly drew accolades, and the restaurant earned its first Michelin star in 1990. The young threesome then hired architect Bruno Borrione, a colleague of famed modernist Philippe Starck. Borrione built them a spacious glass atrium of a dining room, looking out over five different Japanese gardens, each representing a different sense. A fountain symbolizes sight. Rooftop trees rustling in the mistral -- the cold, dry wind of southern France -- represent sound. Apple, pear, cherry and peach trees conjure taste. An aromatic garden of lavender, rosemary, basil and other herbs evokes smell. And olive trees and vines represent touch. "You have to work the vines, after all," says Jacques.
Although the aroma garden disappeared under a wrecking ball when a hotel was added in 1992, visitors can still step behind the somewhat forbidding rose walls on the street and enter a welcoming oasis of nature in the midst of a city.
Like the owners themselves, the atmosphere is young and friendly. The restaurant's 24 tables are usually filled, not with stiffly dressed businessmen, but with 20- and 30-year-olds enjoying themselves. "Many three-star Michelin restaurants are so stiff and formal," says Chateau. "We wanted to keep the original idea of a friendly place where you could come and just enjoy a good meal with friends." For a gastronomic shrine, prices are more than reasonable, with a three-course prix fixe lunch costing only $40 a person. More elaborate dinner menus run $70 or $100.
The food sparkles with flavors of the Mediterranean and Provence, and many dishes are flavored with wine. A starter of grilled snapper is elevated by a Sauternes sauce. A fresh grilled foie gras in a gingerbread crust is perfumed with Banyuls, the rich dessert wine of the nearby Roussillon region. Main courses feature fish spiced with local favorites thyme and rosemary and accompanied with a Provenal-style tomato and onion tart. And a dish of pigeon comes in a red wine and liver sauce.
The wine list emphasizes local specialties. "More than 70 percent of the wine we sell is from Languedoc," says Chateau. Many local vignerons appreciate the Pourcels for promoting their products. "It's a real plus finally to have a local restaurant that equals the quality of our best wines," says Jean-Marie Parcé, the owner of Banyuls winery Domaine de la Mas Blanc. The region's largest producer of varietals, Fortant de France, often hires the Pourcels to cook at its promotions.
A good selection of top Languedoc producers is represented on the list, including Château Puech-Haut, Château de Cazeneuve, Château de Jonquires, Château de Lancyre and Domaine d'Aupilhac. Some of the best bottlings include Domaine L'Aiguelire Coteaux du Languedoc Montpeyroux Côte Dorée 1996 (90 points) for $68, Mas Bruguiere Coteaux du Languedoc Pic St.-Loup 1997 (87) for $45, and Prieure de St.-Jean de Bebian Coteaux du Languedoc 1996 (89) for $63. There are also some trendsetting wines not available in the United States, such as Château de la Negly's La Porte du Ciel Coteaux du Languedoc La Clape ($105), and the Clos des Truffier "Hommage Max," which is a high-powered Syrah made by Negly owner Jean Paux-Rosset from land he owns on the St. Pargoire plateau, near Marlene Soria's Domaine Peyre Rose.
Selections from outside the Languedoc are solid, with a good choice of wines from Burgundy, the Loire Valley, Alsace and the Rhône Valley, including Denis Mortet's Gevrey-Chambertin, Didier Dagueneau's Pouilly-Fumeacute;, Trimbach's Riesling and Chacirc;teau de Beaucastel's Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The list also contains enough for Bordeaux lovers, with Château Pe´trus back to 1974. No non-French wines are available.
Unlike many superstar French chefs these days, however, the Pourcels don't spend much of their time on sponsorships or television appearances outside their restaurant kitchen. They don't have a long-term deal with Fortant, and they don't run an inexpensive bistro. Their preoccupation remains Jardin des Sens. "When they started making fancy food, I worried that my sons were going to get in over their heads," says their mother, Aline. "But they come from a simple background, and I think they have stayed true to their roots."
This search for roots led the twins to buy their own vineyard. While their father, Réné, tended vines on the coastal plain, his sons' property is in the hills, located, like Clos des Truffier, right next to Peyre Rose. "My father never had the possibility to produce fine wine," says Jacques. "We do."
Eventually, they envision closing Jardin des Sens and moving full-time to their new domaine. But the transition won't be easy. A hailstorm destroyed their entire crop this summer. "It's not easy to get three stars for cooking," says Jacques. "It's also not easy to make great wine." Wine lovers may have to wait for a while before tasting the Pourcels' efforts. But the good news is that the two talented chefs will remain for a while in their kitchen, producing top-flight food that encourages locals to produce top-flight wines.
Jardin des Sens
11 Avenue St. Lazare, 34000 Montpellier
Telephone: (011) 33 4 67 79 63 38
Fax: 33 4 67 72 13 05
Open: Lunch, Tuesday to Saturday; dinner, daily
Cost: Prix fixe: lunch, $40; dinner, $70 or $100
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diner's Club