A restaurant with a soul
Back in the glory days of Patpong in the 1970s and 1980s, before the night market arrived, Mizu's Kitchen was one of the hottest places in Patpong Soi 1 in Bangkok.
This Japanese fusion restaurant, now tucked in among the go-go bars on the notorious street, is the oldest independent non-Thai restaurant in the country. It also served as the headquarters of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand after it was formed in the mid-1950s.
The FCCT has moved on to fancier quarters in the Maneeya building on Phloenchit Road. But the sizzling sounds and captivating aroma of Mizu's famous Sarika steak can still be experienced where they've always been found.
Patpong used to be a go-to location for businesses from airlines to trading companies and restaurants before the onslaught of "today's moth-eaten nightlife haunts", as former FCCT president Dominic Faulder wrote in the club magazine three years ago.
Mr Faulder did a brilliant job describing the history of FCCT in Thailand in the article but I wish he'd written more about Mizu's. Luckily, my father was happy to fill me in when we visited the restaurant last month.
Owner Akio Masakari, he told me, first came to Bangkok during World War II as a cook in the Japanese officers' mess. He went home after the war but returned to Bangkok to found Mizu's in 1954.
The restaurant is famous for its yoshoku, or Japanese-style Western food. Some of Japan's best-loved dishes, including omuraisu (rice omelette), korokke (croquette) and kare (curry), fall under this category.
Masakari's most ingenious creation, in my father's view, was the Saba steak, or mackerel cooked in aluminium foil. You can still see a picture of the dish hanging on the red-draped wall next to one of the "extra special" Sarika beef steak.
Japanese fishermen used to look down on mackerel because it was not considered suitable for sushi or sashimi. It would be cured with salt and vinegar to make saba sushi, which originated in Kyoto. But the steak variation from Mizu's caught on with diners and eventually became a hit in Japan as well.
Unfortunately for me, the Saba steak was not available on the night I visited, so the beef steak was the next natural choice. It did not disappoint when it came sizzling on a hot platter with long beans, carrots and mashed potatoes covered with the house gravy on the side.
Regulars at Mizu's know that the red-and-white checked tablecloths exist mainly to protect diners from the splatter of the sizzling-hot dishes when they are served. They look like they have been there forever, along with all the other decor, judging from the pictures scattered about the place.
Akio Masakari passed away a couple of years ago and the restaurant is now under the care of his daughter, Salanya, who is there every night and was kind enough to answer my questions.
As we chatted over warm sake, she told me that Miss See, our waitress, had been working there for 40 years, and so had many other staff and the cook. All the furniture and decorations including the vintage signs are original and approaching antique status. With so much character oozing from every corner, it's a great place to take pictures.
For all its charm, the small restaurant with half a dozen tables can be said to look a little run-down, and a modest renovation would not be out of order. But any renovation should preserve the original spirit. In a city where anything that has lasted more than 30 years is considered old, we need more places like Mizu's to remind us where our souls used to be.
My heart burned with rage when the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, which appears hell-bent on "modernisation", uprooted the Mahakan Fort community. Its ongoing campaign against street vendors also appears misguided to many.
At least local officials had the good sense last week to ignore the whining of a Bang Kholaem condo resident and tell the monks at Wat Sai next door that it was fine for them to keep ringing their bells. The temple has been there for 300 years and will probably be there after the condo is gone.
I'm not comparing Mizu's to Mahakan or saying that a restaurant deserves some kind of official heritage status. But the food is good, the people are friendly, and if you can brave what Patpong has become, it's well worth a visit for history's sake.
Senior Reporter - Asia Focus
Senior Reporter - Asia Focus