’The airless studios grow stifling. Kick the door open, the hum of life turns into a roar’ - so said Polish artist, Feliks Topolski. Ironically, it's now people kicking the door in to Topolski's former studio, which has been converted into a restaurant 'humming with life'. Under the railway arches at the south side of Hungerford Bridge, the studio is a buzzing artistic hub - crammed with artwork, alive with music and chatter, and now rolling out an extensive Polish menu as a nod to the wartime artist's heritage.
Topolski wasn't the kind of guy who painted little watercolours. He went big. In fact, between 1975-1989 he worked on a 15ft-high, 50ft-long mural. Needless to say, his former studio reflects the scale of his artwork. The restaurant has high ceilings, lots of natural light, and plenty of space to wave a paintbrush. This isn't a place to escape the city; it's a place to embrace the city. There is a continual rumble of trains overhead, and the acoustics from urban exposed brickwork allow the chatter to reverberate round the room, making the studio feel buzzing and full.
Topolski attracts a cosmopolitan crowd. The kind who aren't worried about perching on a high seat, who understand the concept of small sharing plates and are big on house-infused vodkas. Music is important. Topolski isn't a restaurant whose background soundtrack is designed to fade into the dining room chatter. Instead, music is often a focal point of the evening, with the restaurant hosting a series of live events and DJ sessions. The artwork, which still decorates Topolski's old studio, is a constant reminder of its former purpose. Unlike some of the chains that run along the South Bank, this is a place rich in history, with life and heart, and a well-earned place in the grand narrative of the area.
Anyone unsure about which flavours define traditional Polish cuisine will be fully knowledgeable after supper at Topolski. The dishes don't have a hint of fusion food, nor do they make an apologetic 'nod' to Poland. These are bold, confident Polish flavours. The thin, kabanos sausage is smoky, the pickles are sharp and the goulash is rich with spicy Polish paprika - balanced by a dollop of sour cream.
Even the salads are turbo-charged with Eastern European flavours. Plain green leaves are replaced by bitter radicchio and chicory, dressed with sweet mustard. The croutons are made from rich, dark rye bread and a garnish of roasted nuts and seeds make a beautifully textured dressing.
The dishes are designed for sharing, such as a meat platter presented on a wooden board with a small dish of spiced radish pickles. Next, a combination of 'main' dishes includes mackerel with blistered black skin, and soft, succulent fish underneath; squid marinated in a piquant parsley and caper sauce; and salt-baked beetroot – the beets’ long tails pinched between finger and thumb, and then dunked into a sour goat’s curd dip. The meal can be rounded off with either a selection of cheeses - from soft, creamy goat's cheese to blue Stichelton made from cow's milk - or a traditional dessert, often featuring stoned fruit and nuts.
True to its roots, Topolski has an extensive list of house-infused vodka. It would be hard to find a more refreshing tipple than the cucumber-infused vodka mixed with tonic water and served in a chilled highball. Other infusions range from pink grapefruit to blackberry, and are all generous portions for a reasonable £7.50. The drinks menu also features European craft beer and wine, as well as a decent spirits section and selection of 'guest' Polish vodkas.
The Last Word
The South Bank is lined with chain restaurants offering perfectly good but conventional meals. So cheers - or 'okrzyki' - to Topolski for arriving to shake things up with its art bunker location, Eastern European charcuterie, boldly flavoured dishes and house-infused vodkas.