MONTPELLIER, France - They are known as les Freres Pourcel, twin brothers who shook the French food world just a year ago as they captured the coveted third Michelin star for their modern, personalized restaurant on the outskirts of this southern city.
Along with their partner-maitre d'hotel-sommelier, Olivier Chateau, theylike to joke that they now have a star for each one of them.
The Pourcel story is a familiar French one. The twins Jacques and Laurent, sons of a local winemaker, grew up with a passion for the food that marries with the rich and heady local wines. As a double tour de force, they spread their wings around the country, Laurent apprenticing to such top French chefs as Michel Bras and Alain Chapel, and Jacques working under the tutelage of Michel Trama, Marc Meneau and Pierre Gagnaire. They opened their own restaurant, Le Jardin des Sens, in Montpellier in 1988 and seem never to have looked back.
Their restaurant-hotel matches their cuisine, with a look distinctly contemporary (the architect, Bruno Borrione, is known for his work at New York's Paramount and Royalton hotels) and a cuisine that intelligently blends tradition with modernity.
Be warned: The place is very hard to find, even for one with a good sense of direction and all the Michelin literature. (Internet users may visit the restaurant Web site - www.relaischateaux.fr - and print out a map.) - Vast, Tiered Dining Room Once you find it, you will enter into a garden of the senses: The vast
tiered dining room overlooks a garden in progress, with a 400-year-old olive tree, fruit trees and vines. Everywhere, from the Porthault linens to the Bernardaud china, you see that they have determined to do it right. My only complaints: prefer a more classic look and find the huge room more of a theater set than a dining room.
I also missed a female presence, one that inevitably lightens and softens what can sometimes be a sobering and off-putting grand three-star experience. The food is a model of modernity, although it is clear that the Pourcels are not about to abandon the great French traditions. Working with the regional larder of Provence and the Languedoc, they have at their disposal fresh oysters, extraordinary sea bass (loup de mer), plump farm pigeons and tender veal.
Their food is complex in ingredients, rich in flavor, but simple to understand: Who could not adore a warming first course of fresh wild cepe mushrooms paired with thin slices of country ham, a tender confit of shallots and garlic, leaves of baby spinach, all bathed in a sauce blending rich meat juices and fragrant walnut oil? Sometimes the combinations are daring, as in bonbons of crusty, deep-fried foie gras served with a sweet-and-sour salad of pears in vanilla and teamed with a salad featuring grilled-rapeseed oil.
Simpler, and so welcoming, is their salad of ''all the season's vegetables, served raw and served cooked'' tossed with a bouquet of herbs in a vinaigrette of olive oil and lemon. The drama continues, with rich filets of young pigeon served atop a sort of Moroccan pastry-wrapped pastilla filled with giblets and seasoned with a touch of curry, all served with pan-seared pears and pigeon juice with a touch of cocoa. And I defy anyone to find fault with the flawless roasted veal chop, simply deglazed with a touch of young garlic, and served with a tiny salad and stuffed Provencal vegetables.
Their food is audacious and architectural, like many of the world's chefs who are filled with that youthful exuberance. But the difference between the Pourcel brothers and those chefs in Sydney or New York is that the twins have training and tradition, a foundation that so many other young chefs lack. Add to this Chateau's extraordinary knowledge of the great wines of the Languedoc, and a good time is assured. - For longtime fans of Pile ou Face in Paris, it was a sad day indeed when they sold the thriving Michelin-starred restaurant three years ago.
Lucky for us, the three restaurateurs - Claude Udron, Alain Dumergue and Philippe Marquet - resurfaced in July on the Mediterranean coast, in Marseillan, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Montpellier. In this quiet seaside village, they opened the charming Chez Philippe, a casual and perfectly appointed bistro with a argain 100-franc ($18) menu.
Since opening day, the ''complet'' sign has been out for lunch and dinner, and reservations a week in advance are not out of order. With chef Sebastien Demeulle at the stove, Chez Philippe offers a choice menu of five starters, five main courses and five desserts, all with an accent on the anguedoc.
With such specialties as the layered vegetable omelette crespeou; eggplant with delicate goat cheese; poached oysters from the Bassin de Thau, and a gratin of mussels cooked in the local Noilly Dry, we have a veritable regional festival. – THE restaurateurs are always searching, for a new local wine, a new local cheese monger, a new local vegetable grower, a new local designer to embellish their already well-tended prize. Go with an eye toward pleasure, and hope that their exuberance, attention to detail and passion for food rubs off.
– Le Jardin des Sens, 11 Avenue Saint-Lazare, 34000 Montpellier. Tel: 04-67-79-63-38; fax: 04-67-72-13-05. Credit cards: American Express, Diners Club, Visa. Closed Sunday,
Monday lunch and two weeks in January. Menus from 230 to 590 francs (about
$40 to $100). A la carte, 190 to 480, including service but not wine. Chez Philippe, 20 rue de Suffren, 34340 Marseillan. Tel: 04-67-01-70-62. Credit card: Visa. Closed Sunday dinner, Monday and Tuesday. Open for dinner only every night in July and August. Closed in January. 100-franc menu. A la carte, 150 to 170 francs, including wine and service