Monday, 5 November 2018

Goodbye friends, it's been fun!

I had a discussion with the Mrs last night about something that has been floating around my mind for a while. I told her that I wanted to quit the whole food-blogging and Instagrammer thing and immediately, I saw this face of concern and anxiety wash over her face.

Now, it's not that she didn't support my decision, in fact, almost immediately after the expression on her face had settled, she said "whatever you want to do, you've got my full support" however, her concern was that I had been doing this for so long that the "Mr Chopsticks" persona had fully become an inseparable part of my identity (she felt) and so, I went about explaining what made me feel like quitting and what finally sealed the deal.

I distinctly remember starting this journey with the Mrs (before she officially became my wife) on the blue couch at her parent's place after we had eaten and had a wonderful experience at a restaurant in the hills area. The experience left such an impression on me that I decided to commit to an on-again-off-again hobby of mine which was food-blogging. Through the support of the Mrs, I was able to stay consistent about it and eventually, even started transitioning my personal Instagram account into a joint one for our food adventures.

So, at first, it was a her-and-I kind of deal...just an extra step to record a memory of our dates online and share our experiences with the world. Then, through Instagram, I started to get exposure...people started commenting on my posts, liking them. I started putting more relevant hashtags on my posts and it ballooned from there. We started being invited to events and I felt like we had been accepted into a wider community of the Sydney Foodie scene. So in short, I got hooked on the attention and positive affirmation.

See, I've never been one to stick around with my hobbies or passions long enough to see results. This was the first of my hobbies where I had actually commited effort into getting better, learning and making it work. If anything, one of the positives I got out of this experience was that I learned the value that was hard-work, commitment and persistence.

So, if it was relatively positive, why am I quitting? Well, to be flatout honest...I'm burnt out. I have been for a while and I no longer get enjoyment from the experience. It all started when my Instagram follower count hit the 1500 mark. Getting from 500 to 1500 felt like a breeze (not in actuality but it was a fun time so I didn't mind) but I felt like I had platued at roughly 1500 and every subsequent plateau was getting harder and harder to organically hit. Instagram is unfortunately a "pay-to-win" model where if you want to take it seriously, it's almost always that you would need to pay for followers or pay for people to go around liking/following other people to get reach. And then once you do attain that superficial level of influence, restaurants and PR companies will then invite you more often therefore compounding your investment and hopefully translating your purchased followers into real ones. I'm sure there are trail-blazers out there who have done it all organically but the amount of effort you would need to put in to get there just isn't something I can give.

So, to summarise, the first reason is that I feel like I can't organically grown beyond my current follower count of 1966 - 1969. I know it's shallow but at some stage, this did become about the numbers and how many people I could reach and seeing the stagnation or my follower count drop depressed me. It literally made me feel sad.

The second reason which is somewhat related to the above is that I don't like the person I've become when Instagram is involved. So, through the years, we've been invited to a few events and at each event, we've managed to meet a number of friendly and like-minded foodies which has been fantastic. Sometimes, this even eventuates in further foodie events, dinners or meetings which really boosted my confidence and told me I was doing the right thing. But somewhere along the line, you see this ugly side of you come start comparing. You tell yourself not to and try to convince yourself that it's not a competition or a race but you inherently start comparing yourself to people who started later than you, do about the same thing and get more followers and get to go to more events. You start to feel jealousy, envy and things that you just shouldn't be feeling.

On top of that, the bonds you build when you're out networking and mingling rarely extend beyond that...a network. Once you turn down one invitation and show that you can't keep up, they start to drift away because they realise you have nothing to contribute to their influence. And that's the key word there...the entire experience has become about "keeping up" and frankly, it's gotten REAL exhausting. On top of that, you do also come to realise that the whole "community" is web of utilitarian's all based on assessments of what you have to give and what you can get out of the other person. Once you come to that realisation, it's hard not to become a paranoid person. I can probably say with confidence that in this time I've been a foodie, I've only ever met maybe two people who I would truly consider a friend.

Finally, the Mrs and I have been doing this for years and a lot of things have changed in our lives. When we started, we were uni students with part time jobs and nothing else to pay for cause we lived at home. We could afford to eat out often and eat well. Then I proposed, and we decided to get married (best decision of my life by-the-way) which means saving towards a goal of paying for a moderate wedding, honeymoon and eventual financial independence. We achieved that and moved out to Parramatta and lived a comfy, newlywed life for two years before finally becoming homeowners this year. We're ticking off boxes in the "stable life" checklist one by one with the intention to continue on and hopefully expand our family further in the future by having kids. In short, we've grown up, moved on and our priorities have shifted...we can't really financially support or justify the "foodie" lifestyle anymore. Additionally, this lifestyle has had it's health impacts on me in that I've gained a significant amount of weight and will need to start cutting down and being more healthy to reduce risks of later health complications.

So, what does this mean?

Well, we ain't giving up the "Mr and Mrs Chopsticks" nickname. It's far too cute and meaningful for us to suddenly just drop it. But it does mean that we won't be committed to blogging or posting on Instagram anymore. We will still eat out (cause, we gotta eat) but it won't be my first instinct to flip out my phone an take pictures or to get it online. I'll only also maybe use a select 3 or 4 l hashtags so as to make it easier for me to identify my posts rather than use them to increase traffic. This also obviously means that we are no longer interested in going to events, collaborating or meeting new foodies.

The Instagram profile will serve as an archive for the history between the Mrs and I and I'll slowly transition the account back into being less about the food and slightly more about us as a couple and a family. The blog will stay around for me to go back to if I ever get sentimental.

As a final piece, I'd like to thank everyone who's ever spent the time to read our posts. As jaded as I am about the experience now, there is no denial that for a long time, being a foodie has enriched our lives and I do hope that at the very least, someone somewhere has gotten a little bit of enjoyment out of reading.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

TOUKA 東家 Japanese Yakiniku Restaurant & Bar - Parramatta, NSW

The Mrs and I have been to Touka once before and during that first dinner, we were so impressed with the decor, the food and the concept that I named it one of the top 10 Japanese restaurants in Parramatta. Today, the Mrs and I were lucky enough to have been invited back to try their new lunch menu and boy, were we even more impressed! 

Before we jump straight into it, the Mrs and I were discussing this earlier today and it occurred to us that westies might not have an idea about what Yakiniku is and what's differentiates it from other table-top barbecue experiences (i.e. the more commonly found Korean BBQ and Chinese style skewer barbecue). Since more yakiniku restaurants are now open in the west, it should be about time that we spread awareness about why people should know about yakiniku and why it's so amazing.

What is yakiniku?

Yakiniku (焼肉) quite literally translates into "grilled meat" and is the Japanese form of table top barbecue. If my facts are correct, this method of eating was introduced to Japan as "Korean cuisine" and became wide-spread in Japan after the second world war. This will be why a number of cuts found in yakiniku have Japanese translated names of cuts you would regularly find in KBBQ (i.e Karubi). In Sydney, the practice was popularised by the chain of restaurants opened by I's Group (Rengaya, Suminoya and Koh-ya) and is quite common place in the city's CBD and northern suburbs. It's only within the last few years that I've seen yakiniku restaurants open up west-way (with the most recent addition being Yakiniku Kosu in Castle Towers).

How is it different from Korean BBQ?

You might say "isn't it exactly the same as Korean BBQ? You still grill meat on a table don't you?"...well, if this is your response I urge you to try Yakiniku once and tell me it's the same. Though the roots of yakiniku might well be Korean, the methodology and execution behind it is so, SO different. Like with everything the Japanese take in, they really put the effort into honing it, perfecting it and elevating something simple into something spectacular. Whereas with Korean BBQ, you have some decently good quality meat that's grilled tabletop, no different from how you would grill a steak at home...yakiniku serves the various cuts of meat in thin, bite size slices and from the moment you bite into any piece of yakiniku meat, you can already tell that the quality is so much higher.

I'm not saying Korean BBQ is low quality or that it's in any way, not good enough but do give yakiniku a try. Literally, the moment you do give it a try, you'll immediately be able to see the difference in the quality of the meat.

So now that we've established what yakiniku is and why you should try it, the next question might be "why isn't it as common or as well known as the Korean counterpart?"...well, the most obvious answer to that would be population spread and the relative price-point to entry. See, to my understanding, Sydney's Japanese population is largely in the CBD and the North, whereas the west is where the Korean community chose to settle (Strathfield, Burwood, Blacktown). Obviously, restaurants will first pop up to serve the local community who has a demand for it and then, people of other cultures will eventually venture out and try stuff if they're told it's good (I imagine, that's how most people learnt to appreciate Korean BBQ). 

In terms of price-point, most yakiniku restaurants operate an All-You-Can-Eat/Order for 90 minutes model for anywhere ranging from $35 - $85 p.p (bit expensive to ask everyone in your party to pay that much when in KBBQ, you can order a number of plates and split) and if they don't operate in that model (like Rengaya which has that option but focuses more on providing higher quality meats on an ala-carte basis) the number of pieces of meat you get for each dish you order might turn people away (like I said earlier, it's generally thinner, smaller slices and based on first glance alone, KBBQ might seem like a better value proposition)

If either of the above points has ever stopped you from trying yakiniku, this will be why you should try their special lunch! The Mrs and I left lunch today singing Touka's praises because we had such a great time and we truly, truly believe that what we got today was FANTASTIC value-for-money! So, for myself, I ordered the 4 choice BBQ Set where I chose the Ox Tongue, Beef Rib, Beef Inside Skirt and the Pork Belly. On the menu, this is costs $22.50 whereby you also get a bowl of rice, miso soup and a salad. On arrival, the each portion of meat had five slices available totalling a variety of 20 slices of decadent, delicious meat for one person. To help you put that into perspective about just how good that is, my parents went to Musou Yakiniku in the CBD (on Pitt Street) where they also had a similar special lunch menu....except they charge $29.90 per person, you only get to choose 3 meats and according to my parents, you get 3 slices of meat per selection. That's a difference of $7.40 and 11 pieces of can't that value. Not saying don't visit Musou Yakiniku (we've also been there and we loved it) but maybe, splurge and treat yourself to their BBQ buffet.

And it's not just value, the meat was genuinely, supremely delicious! I ate it in the order of Ox Tongue first (cause it cooks the quickest), Inside Skirt second (my favourite cut at Suminoya), Pork Belly Third (so fatty and savoury) and I saved the best for last and cooked the Beef Rib to finish. My GOD that Beef Rib was delicious...barely any chew at all and so much marbling that it coated the back of my throat in delicious sweet beef fat. Honestly, I whole-heartedly intend to eat at Touka a lot more now that I know that kind of deal is available and next time, I'm going to just treat myself and quadruple down on the beef rib. It's actually amazing that they've set up the menu where they don't explicitly restrict it to one order per meat Suminoya, you can only order as many plates of Ox Tongue as you want IF you order the higher-end buffet...the standard buffer limits it to one order per diner!

*EDIT*: I've recently been informed that the menu didn't state it but there is a limit of one order of each type of meat for the special menu. Mental note: always get the Beef Rib.

Unfortunately, this is not that Beef Rib (just harami)...the Beef Rib was so delicious I ate it before I realised I hadn't taken a photo....

The Mrs opted to try their other lunch menu items and ordered a Karaage bento. This is another point where Touka shines in that for groups containing people who don't want to eat barbecue, you have a variety of other items (Bento Sets, Lunch Bowls etc) people can choose from. The Mrs and I have this one friend who is a notoriously picky eater (she refuses to eat anything with sauce and is very hard to convince to try anything new) and even then, we'd still take her there and be confident she'd find something to eat. The karaage was crispy and juicy with ample pieces to fill your belly as well as four slices of salmon and tuna sashimi to satiate any cravings for sashimi lovers. The Mrs was very, very satisfied after finishing that bento.

Just for kicks, the Mrs and I also ordered the Yukke which is a raw beef tartare that I always get at any yakiniku restaurant if it's on offer. For $13.90, it was a pretty decently sized portion with a very nice sweet soy tare (marinade) that made the dish heavenly. Even amongst all the Yukke I've had previously (I've been to a LOT of yakiniku), this actually stood out to me as one of the better ones as the flavour was very pronounced.

Overall, the Mrs and I can confidently say that we had an amazing time dining at Touka. I whole-heartednly wish that everyone goes to try out Touka's special lunch to make their own assessments but in my heart, they take the cake for best value. The restaurant is only a short walk from Parramatta station and did I mention it's situated in a historic house? Literally, the fit-out is beautiful, clean and elegant which makes the entire experience so much more enjoyable! The Mrs said she's gonna hit them up more during her school holidays but I intend to be back (by myself) much, much sooner. Thank you again to Lila and TOUKA 東家 Japanese Yakiniku Restaurant & Bar for inviting us to lunch!

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Hulu at King Street Wharf - Barangaroo, NSW

Chinese food has had a long standing history in most developed countries, that holds especially true for a place like Australia where "Salt & Pepper Squid" has unofficially become the national dish. I bet for every suburb in Sydney where there is a shopping strip, you will find at least one Chinese restaurant or takeaway shop and you will be able to get Chinese food relatively easily. But unfortunately, I feel like Chinese food hasn't always had the most glamorous of images...historically, people tend to only think of Chinese food as greasy and MSG-laden meals you can get at food-courts. Even our oldest venues like Golden Century have these images where it's the place you go when you're really drunk off your ass.

My point is: it's hard to tell someone that Chinese food is a refined ordeal. It's really not until recent years that we've had a surge in newer establishments that focused on produce, quality, presentation and highlighting the best parts of Chinese food (Mr. Wong, Lotus Dining, Billy Kwong etc) and I can see the image slowly start to shift in the minds of the people. Our recent visit to Hulu at King Street Wharf is a prime example of a restaurant that's trying to do one of the oldest cuisines in the world justice by giving people a look at what a refined and high-class Chinese dining experience would look like.

The Mrs and I were fortunate enough to have been invited to attend one of four sessions of complimentary dining intended to showcase what Hulu has to offer and generate excitement about this new venue. We had originally intended to attend one of the first sessions but due to a clash with my ACL reconstruction surgery, we had to push our attendance out to the very last session which wasn't a bad thing at all as we got to dine with some interesting and colourful people (have to admit, was a bit star-struck when @spooningaus walked in as I had been watching him eat on Where's The Food on Youtube)

We were ushered into a small private dining area near the back of the restaurant where we were seating at a round table with a large glass lazy-susan which you typically find at Chinese restaurants. The decor of the restaurant was brightly coloured with some mellow blues and Chinese themed ornaments all around. I was most impressed by the abacus shaped lighting which reminded me of when I was a child, first learning to calculate on a similar device.

As soon as all guests had arrived, we were promptly served where @teafortammi quickly and efficiently picked up the menu, asked what was recommended and got us sorted with a plethora of delicious delights including dumplings, soup and various chef's specialities.

For the night, we ordered:

The Hulu Mix Appetisers (served in a specialty hulu shaped dish)
A hulu is a traditional Chinese gourd used to store liquids and medicine

Pan Fried Mushroom Dumplings

Hulu's Signature Crispy Cheese & Prawn Dumplings

Nemo Dumplings

Pepper & Pickled Cabbage Soup w/ Pork Intestines

Sweet & Sour Pork On Ice

Spinach in High Soup, Eggs Trilogy

Homemade Tofu & Mushrooms, Fried with Egg White Sauce

Half Duck Smoked in Jasmine Tea

Beef Cubes Pan Fried, Black Pepper Sauce

Egg White Fried Rice w/ Fish Roe

and for desserts, we got the:

Osmanthus Cake

And, the Deep Fried Ice Cream w/ Chocolate Syrup

Overall, the Mrs and I had a great time dining at Hulu at King Street Wharf and we were really glad we got to share this experience with some other like-minded people. The venue itself is fabulously fit out and suites the location quite spectacularly as a finer establishment for diners to get an authentic Chinese feed by the wharf. My personal favourite item of the night had to be Hulu's Crispy Cheese & Prawn Dumplings which had a texture like Ham Sui Gok from Yumcha but with a more seafood based filling. I Imagine that if I got to eat that piping hot, I'd be able to down plate after plate of those dumplings.

Thank you again to Hulu at King Street Wharf and Red Productions for inviting the Mrs and I and we look forward to the next time we get to dine at such a fine establishment whenever the opportunity presents itself!

Saturday, 5 May 2018

The Meat & Wine Co Parramatta x FCBA - Parramatta, NSW

I distinctly remember the very first time I ever came to Parramatta. I remember skipping university (back then, I was still attending my first year at ACU Strathfield) and accompanying a friend as he drove out to go buy some musical equipment. I'd never before ventured that far out west but the place filled me with wonder and excitement as I got to see a whole new side of Sydney I never knew existed. I think I had a little spark of an idea back then that "oh, it'd be nice to one day settle down here...." and then flash forward a decade and I've literally become a Parramatta local in purchasing our first home within the area. 

I absolutely LOVE my new home (new, despite the fact that I've been living here for the past two years) fills me with so much pride and joy to see this humble suburb (CBD actually) grow and see so many businesses open up shop and flourish. And, in a small part, I'd like to think that my hobby of food-blogging does help contribute to the growth and popularity of the area by highlighting exactly what's great about this place. This is why when sophichuuu from the Food Bloggers and Critics Association (FCBA) sent us a DM on instagram, asking if we'd like to join them in celebrating the opening of The Meat & Wine Co Parramatta, we absolutely jumped at the honour of attending!

The Mrs and I had once had a spectacular dinner at their now-defunct Darling Harbour venue (IMAX got torn down ☹️) and so, we went in with very high expectations. Needless to say, our expectations were certainly met when we were guided into the dining room which was set up specifically for the FCBA members in attendance. The decor and the ambience is such that you wouldn't be amiss to imagine that you were actually in the middle of the city in Circular Quay or Barangaroo...the riverside venue certainly adds an undeniable elegance to the location.

As soon as we were comfortably seated and acquainted with our neighbours for the night (nice meeting you all: tasingthecloud, onceuponacraving, parramattafoodie, e_deliciou_s), our host from the Seagrass Boutique Hospitality Group, Mona told us a little about M&WCO...for example, did you know that they were farm-to-table (or "gate-to-plate" as she put it)? Or that they use a secret basting recipe that's 45 years old? I didn't know any of that going in but it certainly did put a smile on my face knowing so much care and dedication was going into the food I was about to ingest. 

The night started off with some appetisers which included some raw plates to share. Firstly, a Wagyu Tartare w/ Smoked Yolk, Green Dressing and Lavash bread followed by a Shaved Octopus w/ chive, peri and lemon as well as a Whisky Cured Salmon w/ Roe and Cauliflower Custard Cream. I can never go past a good tartare but I was really pleasantly surprised when the Whisky Cured Salmon stole the spotlight for me. The deep and satisfying spice of the whisky really came through as you had the soft, melty flavour of the salmon as an initial note followed by a tinge of peat coming from the curing process. This is all then rounded out by the salinity offered by the roe and the creaminess from the cauliflower custard cream which helps blanket each bite with a moreish savouriness.

As there were two entrees on offer, the Mrs and I both opted to have one each of the Szechuan Calamari and the Pork Belly. My god, you should try that pork belly...literal melt-in-your-mouth tenderness with this rich buttery pork fat that seeps into every corner of your mouth. Don't trust me? watch my reaction and try to tell me you don't want a piece.

Finally, for the mains, guests had a selection of the Monte 200g grain-fed fillet, 300g Shorthorn Rib Eye and the Chicken Breast. I tried my absolute best to try and convince the Mrs that the sensible move, would have been to order both steaks since you know, beef. But alas, the Mrs chose to have the Chicken Breast which actually, was surprisingly flavoursome. The outside was crusted in this thin, delicate crust and it was served with a healthy dollop of garlic sauce (toum). But you know, where there's a rib-eye, you just cannot beat that satisfaction of cutting into that tender meat and feasting on a perfect, medium-rare chunk of beef. The beef was perfectly cooked and aside from the rich flavour of the meat, you really did get that final note of sweetness from the basting which helped refresh your palate allowing you to go back for more and more beef!

Finally, the dinner ended on a high note with the arrival of the desserts: Creme Brulee and Apple Pie. Between the two, my favourite had to be the Apple tasted just like Maccas which is in no way a detriment. What I mean is that the crunchy exterior and the intense impact of the cinnamon instantly brought me back to my most treasured memories of my first time enjoying a hot Maccas apple pie.

Overall, the experience that we had on Wednesday night was a fantastic one and knowing that we can now replicate that spectacular first dinner we had at Darling Harbour at a venue much closer to home is such a comfort. The Mrs left the venue that night a happy diner and has said that The Meat & Wine Co would be a great venue to bring your most treasured friends and family for an intimate dinner. No doubt the Mrs and I will be looking forward to future dinners here with our friends and fellow foodies.