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With 12 guest rooms and two suites, one of which includes a faux-fur-covered bedroom wall as well as a private swimming pool, Le Jardin des Sens is home to one of this country's great tables.

Owned and run by 39-year-old chefs (and twins) Jacques and Laurent Pourcel, Le Jardin des Sens opened as a restaurant in 1988 in this lively university town of roughly 230,000 inhabitants.

With partner Oliver Château, the brothers hired Philippe Stark protégé Bruno Borrione -- who helped design The Paramount and The Royalton in Manhattan and The Delano in Miami -- to create the interiors for their inn, which opened in 1996.

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The twins have become an industry. They have two lavish cookbooks to their credit, a line of tableware, and an atelier that offers cooking classes. They also run four other venues and plan to launch restaurants in Bangkok, central London and Barcelona in 2004.

Design

Though the peach-coloured façade is unremarkable, the lobby is something else: an audaciously appointed space with carefully mismatched chairs and tables, provocative pieces of sculpture and edgy, unframed paintings. The canvases are part of the Pourcels' collection of works by young French artists that are scattered throughout the hotel.

Guests pass beneath a red-velvet drape as they proceed to the main restaurant. Resembling an amphitheatre, Le Jardin seats 90 and has glass walls on three sides, the main wall overlooking a lush garden.

Most of the guest rooms have views of the main garden and the outdoor pool. There's a breakfast room off the lobby and a boutique that sells the tableware and glassware used in the main restaurant.

Upstairs, the hallways are painted in deep red and apple green, with recessed lighting illuminating the artwork. Outside, the door of one of the suites is an upright bundle of wood that looks as though it was plucked from the forest.

Ambiance

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The lounge area is filled with wait staff scurrying about on some errand or other, but the space nonetheless retains its feeling of tranquillity and intimacy. The garden in summer must be the perfect place to sit and sip a Kir Royale.

Clientele

Most people visiting Le Jardin des Sens do so to sample its three-star restaurant. The guests I saw seemed like a fairly flush lot, well-groomed and, evidently, well-fed. It's the sort of upmarket clientele that takes barge-cruise vacations.

Rooms

Beautiful mahogany floors set off walls that are painted in deep dramatic colours. Borrione also designed the chic, dark-stained furniture, which includes desks set behind the bed heads.

There's sexy ambient lighting, and the sheets, blankets and bedspreads are of the best quality linen.

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The bathrooms are large and well appointed.

Service

Room service is prompt and reception-desk staff are extremely helpful. Despite the "coolness" of the place, attitude is entirely absent.

Food and drink

Sons of a local winemaker, the brothers Pourcel had highly successful separate careers as chefs before joining forces. Their complex, innovative menu items reflect their artistry. This is exceptional haute cuisine with a decidedly Mediterranean accent. A $180 all-inclusive menu, for example, features scallops with red turnip carpaccio and baked filet of turbot with ham and porcini raviolis. The extensive wine selection puts more than a passing focus on local products from Languedoc and Côte du Roussillon.

Things to do

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Montpellier is the city in which most French people say they would like to live, thanks to its lively atmosphere and alluring Mediterranean climate. Home to the University of Montpellier, the city is rich in cultural offerings, including a magnificent Opera House.

You can visit the medieval city centre and its many squares, among them the egg-shaped Place de la Comédie with the Fountain of the Three Graces at its centre.

The Musée Atger (2 rue de l'École de Médecine) has a collection of more than 500 18th-century drawings and sketches by Caravaggio, among others. Also worth seeing is the Antigone, a neo-classical-inspired development designed by Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill that brings together apartments, offices, stores and hotels.

Information

Le Jardin des Sens: 11 avenue Saint-Lazare; phone: 33 (4) 99 58 38 38; Web: http://www.jardindessens.com.

The hotel is a member of Relais & Châteaux. Single rooms start at about $245.

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