The best restaurant in San Antonio, Texas, has neither fried chicken nor barbecue meat. In fact, it is a French brasserie that seems to have been teleported from a well-heeled neighborhood in a town in the Rhône Valley or Southwest France, with a menu featuring duck confit, Lyonnaise salad, moules marinières, and charcuterie platters. In March 2021, a few months after it opened, Brasserie Mon Chou Chou received five stars – the highest possible rating – from the city’s leading food critic, Mike Sutter, of The San Antonio Express-News.
Far from the clichés of chic, expensive French restaurants, Mon Chou Chou is an affordable, relaxed eatery, elegant without the snobbery. Its outside seating area is decorated with a gleaming red-and-white Citroën 2 CV nicknamed “Choupette.” Meanwhile, the flagship dish is a half-baguette over which a waiter pours melted raclette cheese. The interior design features a modern take on the Art Deco codes of French brasseries, with tiling, wide booths, rattan chairs, and a vast bar next to the kitchen. Visitors won’t find vintage liquor posters, photos of Edith Piaf, or artificial patina furniture. “In the dining area and in our dishes, we try to tell a story – and we want that story to be authentic,” says Jérôme Sérot, strategy and development director at the Southerleigh Hospitality Group, which launched the brasserie.
This story is above all about a 20-year friendship between three hotel and restaurant veterans. The chef, Laurent Réa, originally from Strasbourg, came to the United States to work at Chefs de France, Paul Bocuse’s restaurant at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. The operations director, Philippe Placé, a Chartres native, headed up several establishments in Texas after learning his trade at Claridge’s in London and the Hôtel Lutetia in Paris. And Jérôme Sérot, a Lyon local, also moved to America after working in several international luxury hotels. The trio met in San Antonio in the early 2000s.
The City of Davy Crockett and Tony Parker
Americans know the city for the historical site of Fort Alamo, the nerve center of the Texas Revolution, while the French know it for the Spurs basketball team, where Tony Parker played from 2001 to 2018. It is the second largest city in Texas – 1.4 million inhabitants – and welcomes almost 30 million tourists per year, yet has never featured on the map of U.S. foodie destinations. “This is changing, and the local restaurant scene is on the rise,” says Mike Sutter. “It has the same characteristics Austin exhibited ten years ago, just before it became a success on a national level. San Antonio has what it needs to follow the same path.”
As San Antonio is not home to a large French community, Philippe, Laurent, and Jérôme often found themselves at the same events and places. “We’re all around the same age, with between 20 and 30 years of experience in the restaurant sector,” says Philippe Placé. “Over time, we also discovered that we shared the same cultural references and the same dreams.” During one meet-up, the three friends started talking about one day opening their own restaurant. “As we are French, and work in the industry, we often talk about cooking,” says Laurent Réa. “After years spent in gourmet eateries, I wanted to create a project based on simpler, more authentic, locally sourced cuisine.”
However, it took a combination of factors for the three San Antonio-based Frenchies to take the plunge in early 2020. At the time, Jérôme Sérot and Laurent Réa were already working together, but their business had nothing to do with French food. Their group had just one restaurant, Southerleigh Fine Food and Brewery, which served Southern Texan cuisine in partnership with chef Jeff Balfour. When they learned that a French brasserie was set to open right next to their restaurant, they decided to force fate’s hand. “We had two weeks to develop a counterproject and present it to the people in charge, who were initially very reluctant,” says Jérôme Sérot. “Philippe called Laurent, who immediately said yes. In just ten days, we created an incredible project complete with logos, aprons, and a full menu. We organized a meal, with Laurent in the kitchens, to show the building owner what we wanted to do. And they chose us!”
The Texan Mindset Triumphs over the Pandemic
Right after its launch, the brasserie project nearly collapsed in the spring of 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic saw the U.S. – and the rest of the world – grind to a halt. “Overnight, we had to close our only restaurant, let our 95 employees go, and shift everything to takeout. We personally stood on the sidewalk serving the dishes,” says Philippe Placé. “At the same time, we were preparing to open the brasserie and launch another restaurant with two different groups of investors,” says Jérôme Sérot. “We were lucky to have been in Texas, which has a strong entrepreneurial spirit. Not only did no one ask us to postpone, but we were able to continue the renovation work during lockdown. We even opened both locations earlier than expected!”
In December 2020, for its opening, Mon Chou Chou took advantage of local Texans looking to go back out for dinner. A more anecdotal boost came from the successful Netflix series Emily in Paris, which also helped to bring in customers. “We had young women coming to take selfies at the restaurant,” says Philippe Placé. Both the decor and the menu are perfectly suited to the social media generation. “Our raclette sandwich has been a huge hit on Instagram and is still our best-selling dish. But it also represents what we want to do – offer a high-quality, French version of American comfort food through an approachable menu.”
Two years after it opened, the brasserie is still going strong and Mike Sutter, the food critic for The San Antonio Express-News, has stayed true to his first impressions. “I have been there several times, and I think it’s every bit as well run as it was in the beginning,” says the journalist, who ranked Brasserie Mon Chou Chou first in his December 2022 annual selection of the best local restaurants. “It’s ultimately the place to go to have dinner in San Antonio, to get a feel of a city on the rise.”