The Bullring is many things to many shoppers and it presumably makes a significant contribution to consumer spending, and therefore, economic turnover, in Birmingham.
It is, or was, the biggest shopping centre north of Kettering when it threw open its doors in 2003. In doing so, smart-arsed marketing bods were allowed to re-write the city’s historic nomenclature by contracting two perfectly good words – “Bull” and “Ring” – into one, “Bullring.” A thousand years of history was rebranded in a masterstroke of Bull and Shit. How Londoners would love it if Trafalgar Square was renamed Trafalgarsquare in order to accommodate the whims of property developers.
Less well-known than the naming wrangle is the fact that the Bullring stands as one of the dullest concentrations of restaurants and cafés in Britain. The honourable exception, and excuse me if I’ve missed another, is Mount Fuji. I haven’t been to this bento/sushi joint since the foothills of Mount Fuji were blocked out a couple of years ago by the monstrosity known as Spiceal Street, a development which has vacuumed up the daylight together with any notion of non-formula, inspiring cooking.
Basically, the planners decided there weren’t enough crap chain restaurant inside the confines of the Bullring so they came up with the concept of Spiceal Street, where they could ram a few more. It’s not an area the city’s marketing team, Olive magazine and a local paper in New York tend to flag up when they get aroused about Birmingham’s dining scene.
Birmingham, of course, isn’t any different to any other major UK city in this regard. But what puzzles me to the point of despair is the fact that people spend their hard-earned cash on the Bullring’s starch ‘n’ sniff calorie-churners when there is a whole host of decent places round the corner in Chinatown/Southside. Over here, the food is better, it’s cheaper, it’s far more fun, and there are no footballers.
I took my two teenage daughters to Topokki in Hurst Street – all of three minutes’ walk from the backdoor of Debenhams in the Bullring – to try the restaurant’s “Korean home cooking cuisine.” Put simply, we loved it. We weren’t served by uniformed twits calling us “You guys.” There was rice, noodles, sweet meats, soups, salads, big flavours, no crap. You can’t ask for much more for £10-£15 a head.
Topokki has been open for a couple of years and is among the new wave of Southeast Asian cafés and restaurants that have opened in the district since 2010. More established places have been forced to spend money on a lick of paint and improving food quality and that has got to be a good thing for customers.
Topokki is small, unselfconsciously quirky and seats about 40 covers. The kitchen is staffed entirely by women chefs who work in a serene, unflustered manner. The clean, efficient, friendly style is well complemented by two young men, led by Hyun, who manage the dining room. It’s an all Korean affair and the restaurant is proud of the fact it uses flavour combinations and spices for savoury effect rather than additives and the dreaded MSG.
All the tables were taken or reserved so we were seated, canteen-style, at the communal wooden tables in the middle of the room. For Korean food newbies, there is no need to panic as the menu features pictures and helpful (non-patronising) descriptions of the dishes. So go with an empty tummy and work your way through a great array of mixed rice dishes, stir-fries, curries and sides. And there’s DIY barbecue. For the latter, you’d be advised to reserve because the barbecues are built into the tables along one side of the restaurant. Here, you can happily play at Ray Mears without having to kill or marinade the meat.
Food is served in the traditional style, i.e. when it’s ready. Steamed kimchi dumplings (six for £5.50) are gone in a couple of mouthfuls, the kimchi tang evened out by radish, carrot, garlic, vermicelli and ginger.
Korean dumplings (5 for £5.20) are fried, non-greasy, rammed with tiny choppings of soybean curd, oyster mushroom, spinach and other veg. Great nibbles.
What struck me was how utterly, moreishly savoury everything was. Sound stupid? It does a bit, but so much restaurant food – British, French, Azabijiani, SE Asian, whatever – is dumbed down and bland in the UK. I was brought up in Kent, not Seoul, although I was a sometime soul boy, so I cannot attest to the authenticity of Topokki’s Korean food. But if Hyun says this is the stuff from home, cooked the home way, I am inclined to believe him because the dishes have that nurturing, home-style taste.
So there is punch aplenty in the bulgogi dolsot bibimbap (£8.40). There is the strong soy/sesame/garlic/pepper hit of the grilled beef, a hot (but not that hot) pepper paste sauce, mushrooms and other veg, which you stir with the steamed rice in the sizzling stone pot.
Equally good is the jeyuk dupbap (£7.90), a spicy pork stir fry which comes with great sticky rice. The dish prompted an unseemly battle on our table as chopsticks vied for titbits.
We tried a soup, saewoo guksu (Korean noodle soup with fried king prawns), which had a lovely, clear broth. The soup is light but does not lack for depth of flavour, so one of the three chefs clearly knows the ropes when it comes to soups and stocks.
I happily nibbled from a small bowl of kimchi (£1.50) throughout the meal. A lot of reverential nonsense has been written about kimchi (fermented cabbage jazzed up with chill pepper, mooli, ginger, onion, fish sauce and the like) when basically it is a tasty pickle.
If it is done well, it’s like a good piccalilli, only a different colour, and made with different things. But you get the picture. I loved the kimchi here but then I pretty much loved everything about Topokki, including the value for money.
The three of us ate well for the equivalent of £13 a head. We had soft drinks although beers and wines are available.
Birmingham Pride 2014 takes place in Southside over the May bank holiday weekend on May 24-25. If you are lesbian, gay, bissexual, transgender, straight – or simply aren’t sure – there are plenty of Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean places in the district and it can be tricky to choose. But Topokki is pretty topping if you ask me.
- Topokki, Unit 1C South Side, Hurst Street, Birmingham B5 4TD
- T: 0121 666 7200