Their website is a veritable treasure trove of hilarious spelling catastrophes; I dare you to read through it without either grinning with delight or, if you’re like me, groaning with pedantic disbelief that English can be written so very badly. It didn’t inspire me with great confidence but nonetheless I booked a Saturday evening table for five during a non-drinking January (sponsor us for Cancer Research Dryathlon here) at the new-ish Korean restaurant, Topokki.
Topokki is situated about half way down Hurst Street, on the outskirts of Birmingham’s gaybourhood, and seats about forty diners in its industrially styled cafe. The tables and seating are simple but were comfortable for the couple of hours we were there for – there’s nothing worse than a numb bum halfway through your starter. A skyscape mural adorns one wall, with other appropriate artwork around the place giving a homely feel. You also get a view in to the kitchen so you can watch your food being prepared and cooked – rightly or wrongly this gives me confidence that my food is actually being prepared by someone who knows Korean food, and isn’t going to commit any heinous food-hygiene faux pas.
None of our party had eaten Korean food before, so we had no idea what to expect. Although the website menu had a couple of pictures of the food, I can’t say I was familiar with any of the names including Dupbap, Bibimbap, Kimchi, Kare, and Bulgogi. I’ve seen reports from several people online who, unlike me, do know Korean food, and they rave that it is authentic.
There’s a good selection of soft-drinks including Aloe Vera juice (“the chewable juice drink” – yuck) and Ramune – the latter being a lighty sparkling lemon and lime drink served in the most over-engineered marble stoppered bottle I’ve seen. Getting in to it was entertainment enough for one of our friends for a good twenty minutes. They also served Asahi lager.
For starters we ordered the kimchi pancake, Korean spiced chicken, and salt and pepper chicken. If you’re not ravenous then you could share a couple of dishes between three. We completely over-ordered. The Kimchi pancake consisted of a large thick pancake, which I believe has a base of
mung beans and not flour, although I did not corroborate this with the chefs. The batter contained vegetables and Kimchi. Kimchi is Korea’s national dish and is essentially a mix of pickled fermented vegetables – don’t worry, it’s not as awful as it sounds. The pancake had an earthy taste that was complimented by a chilli and soy sauce dip. It was very filling and could easily have served two as a starter. The spiced fried chicken was lightly battered and in a spicy sauce, I thought it could have done with more oomph, although it was still a tasty dish. The salt and pepper chicken though was excellent, with layers of pepper flavours in the golden batter. Pepper is a much underused spice in English cuisine in my opinion so I like getting a fix of it when I can.
Don’t expect fine dining if you eat here. The service is a little bit rough and ready. Five or more minutes passed between the first starter and the last starter being brought to the table, and then a main arrived while we were halfway through starters. Don’t let that put you off though – the staff were very friendly and helpful and the early main was taken away and was baking hot when it came back with the rest of the mains later. I guess I’d describe the service as relaxed, no rush, no worry. The waiters want you to be happy, which is unlike several restaurants in Brum where diners seem just to be there to get in the way of them chatting with their friends.
Mains arrived piping hot and well presented. We tried several dishes. The Chicken Bibimbap was served with sticky rice which could be easily eaten with the traditional Korean chopsticks and spoon, the chicken was flavoured with a sweet soy sauce. We tried two types of Dupbap, that’s a rice bowl dish, one with chicken and one with pork. The Dupbap were served in stone bowls which were very hot and filled with steamed rice then topped with the meat and a spicy sauce. I really enjoyed the spice as it wasn’t overly hot but had a kick. I also loved the mix of texture in the rice because the heat from the bowl had made some of it crunchy – delicious! The Chicken Kare reminded us of a Chinese style curry but the chicken was bread-crumbed like chicken katsu, so again there was good texture differences there. I didn’t think much of the beef noodles. We had a 50p side of bright yellow pickled radish, give it a go it’s surprisingly nice. Several of the tables in the restaurant have frying stations at the table where you can order a platter of raw meats and vegetables and fry them yourself. Many Chinese restaurants in Birmingham also offer this and I don’t really get it, but if you want to pay to cook your own food it is an option here. There were a couple of groups of friends dining there who had ordered larger kimchi pancakes, some containing seafood, to share while they had a beer or a cup of tea. The atmosphere was casual and convivial.
Including drinks, starters, mains, and several sides it still only came to £20 a head including tip.
I’d like to go back here for a kimchi pancake lunch with an Asahi beer, or an early evening dinner with friends. Maybe next time you fancy a Chinese, give this a go instead, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.