BANGKOK — One of the first questions I asked Brainwake Café proprietor and CEO Suranand Vejjajiva when we met on Monday was whether his cousin, former premier Abhisit Vejjajiva, has ever visited the café.
“No,” 58-year-old Suranand said, adding that his cousin may be simply indisposed. “I try to look at it positively.”
He was quick to add that his ex-boss, former PM Yingluck Shinawatra, came to the opening of the café back in June 2015. During his tenure as the Prime Minister’s Secretary-General, Suranand was one of the public faces of the government – he often showed up on media to counter attacks from the opposition – until the coup ended his political career in May 2014.
Five years after the coup, and four years after starting Brainwake Café, the former politician looks happy and busy with the restaurant’s nine branches. It all started from this one here on Sukhumvit 33 where he keeps an office on the upper floor of the café, which can accommodate up to 80 customers.
In the first three years after the coup, Suranand said, the junta’s soldiers often paid visits here, both uniformed and plain clothed ones. These days, however, the soldiers are long gone, and the place is busy with mixed diners of Thais, Japanese and Westerners.
Suranand said he actually wants the café to be like an American diner, but feels that Thais don’t really know the meaning of a diner so he sticks with the word cafe.
He maintained that he’s done with politics. Suranand recalls how in the early days of the café, some anti-Thaksinnites would drop by at the café and make a point not to order anything.
According to Suranand, some customers also explicitly told him that they were on the opposite side of the political divide, and one proudly said he was the streets chasing Yingluck out of office.
“I told him: ‘never mind. Just eat,’” Suranand said. “We welcome everyone. No matter which [political] color.”
“Thai food critics are not real food critics”
Food here is reasonably priced and it probably has one of the best magazine and coffee-table book collection of any café in the capital. There are Monocle magazines for the trendy, Foreign Policy for the internationally minded, and some Japanese fashion magazines.
The cheeseburger I ordered (195 baht) comes with potato wedges, which proved to be particularly good, crisp on the outside and soft inside. The beef patty is quite as good, though it’s nothing to die for.
Suranand himself doesn’t cook, but he considers himself to be a gourmand and an experienced food reviewer. He said his background as a son of a diplomat posted in Buenos Aires, Kuala Lumpur, and Rome helps fine-tune his tongue to be more discriminating.
“I have tasted a lot as a diplomat’s son. I have also lived abroad,” Suranand said. He also said that a genuine food critic is hard to come by in Thailand.
“Thai food critics are not real food critics,” he said, adding that Thais tend not to take criticism constructively. “When I criticize, it was for them to improve, not to cause damage.”
Minutes after that I took the opportunity to politely inform Suranand that while his Japanese curry rice is fine, I would most likely rather go to a Japanese restaurant which specializes in the proper dish. Suranand gave a nod in what might be interpreted as an agreement.
Thailand as a Dish
Another dish I ordered today, volcanic egg rice with ham, was really good and a good deal at 85 baht. The egg is half cooked and the rice somewhere between Thai and Japanese rice. It’s a simple comfort food done well that reminds me of a good Omu Risu or Japanese omelette rice.
Pastry and bread under the supervision of award-winning Japanese Boulanger Kazuma Sato, who was poached from Kobe to work for the café, is also an attraction. The pastry I tried was satisfactory though I won’t say it’s that great. Yet the branches on Sukhumvit 33 and the Thonglor area still attract a lot of Japanese expats and housewives.
For dessert, Suranand suggested Delice De Yuzu (145 baht) and it was delicate and very agreeable – neither too sweet nor too acidic and with a bit of gold leaf placed on top.
Those with a preference for basic Thai food would do well to try the café’s large boat noodle or kuay teow ruar at 95 baht which comes with authentic thick blood and herb soup.
As Suranand watched me eat, I interrupted his gaze and asked what kind of food should Thailand be compared to. The man paused to think of his response, saying he was never asked such a question.
“If it’s compared to Thai food then there must be two grades: a multi-dish set menu for the elites and a single dish [rice] meal for the rest,” Suranand said. “If I may be allowed to be slightly sarcastic, then it’s box meal from 7/11 heated in microwave for the latter.”
Given a rather affordable price of food here, starting from 85 to 485 baht for a beef steak, Suranand noticed that the less wealthy Thai clients tend to disappear towards the end of the month as their purses dry up while some of the rich Thai customers would convene at a table for four, with each of them driving their own cars to the restaurant.
As he was readying himself to leave for work at another branch, Suranand said it’s easier to be the PM’s sec-gen than running 9 restaurants. I pressed him again if he has absolutely bidden farewell to life in politics for food business.
“Never say never,” Suranand said.
Maybe the soldiers might want to return to patronize Brainwake again soon.
Brainwake Café Main Branch is located on Sukhumvit Soi 33 and opens every day from 7am to 9pm. The writer paid for all the food and drinks by himself though Suranand insisted on giving a 5 percent discount. Call 02-005-0026 for more information.