Natural wine enthusiasts are kind of like vegetarians: we know their preferences, but their reasons why diverge wildly. A few natural wine fans are taking an ecological stand. (It stands to reason that most natural wine restaurants in Paris serve sustainable fish.) Other people just want to avoid headaches. Still others - and in this category I would place most of the vignerons I know - have only aesthetics in mind: they promote natural wine because it simply tastes better.
My own reasons for preferring natural wine are complicated, half-aesthetic, quasi-Marxist, cultural preservationist... I can't choose just one. But it seems to me that one would have to be firmly in the pure-aesthetics camp in order to justify serving natural wine beside steaks shipped from Argentina, as chef Fernando de Tomaso does at his 11ème Argentine bistrot La Pulperia.
The practice also identifies the restaurant as being aimed at squarely at native Parisians. Anyone else - all the expats I know and surely every tourist - would prefer, whilst in Paris, to consume any of the numerous renowned varieties of French beef (Charolais, Aubrac, etc.). Many of us have stood by shaking our heads as international meat places like Bang!, The Beef Club, and La Pulperia open, and French restaurant culture sails further into the maw of the global capitalist whale, the belly of which contains everything, as many choices as a Whole Foods Market... Doomsaying aside, La Pulperia boasts pleasing cuisine and a surprisingly deep natural wine list, making it a probably a fine place to return if I ever become truly Parisian. (God help me.)
It's true that I am perenially complaining about a lack of good ethnic food in Paris, particularly Italian. I do this because Italy is a neighboring culture with a rich and varied culinary history. I don't complain about a lack of Argentine steaks, or of kangaroo meat, for that matter.
La Pulperia's name, as you might have already guessed, is pretty misleading. The night my friends and I visited - a Saturday - there was precisely one octopus dish available, off-menu. And it was the worst thing I ate all night, a sickeningly literal presentation of the listed ingredients: octopus, milk.
I think there had been a kitchen error. The milk tasted like milk, almost unseasoned. There is a Bangladeshi restaurant I frequent whose staff have been kind enough to tolerate me occasionally sending back my salty latchis, because occasionally whoever's preparing it doesn't use enough salt or yogurt and it tastes like a glass of frothy whole milk. This dish was like someone poured said latchi misfire over an octopus. (Which itself sounds like a good idea for a surrealist film.)
The rest of the meal was mostly good news, from a purely hedonistic standpoint. The argentine steaks were delish - fatty, full-flavored, and tender, although slightly overseasoned. (Why ship something around the world, only to mask its flavors?)
Plate presentation was of a considerably higher standard than I'd expected, a testament, I later learned, to de Tomaso's time in kitchens at Le Crillon and the Jardin du Royale Monceau.
In this regard La Pulperia follows the successful trick of restaurants like Le Chateaubriand, whose plating always seems that much more delicate in contrast to the goonish service chaos surrounding it. La Pulperia's proprietors have shoved about two two-tops too many into the available space, even by Parisian sardine standards, with the result that absenting oneself for a cigarette or a piss necessitates a game of live action Tetris with one's neighboring tables.
For those of us not especially interested in Argentine steaks, La Pulperia's chief draw is its laudably deep natural wine list. For this the restaurant deserves more credit than you might think. Good restaurants in Paris order most bottles domaine direct, rather than through a distributor as in the US. So instead of managing, say, five to ten relationships with that many distributors or importers, a wine director with a solid list must manage thirty to fifty individual relationships with eccentric winemakers, whose delivery schedules are dependent upon his or her own demanding personal and viticultural calendar. So deep wine lists are an administrative challenge that most Paris natural wine bistrots have basically just given up on. Hence the rarity of restaurants that even bother printing a list of their natural wines. (Like many small businesses in France, natural wine bistrots often take laxity and laziness to the proverbial next level, in this case by failing even to update their chalk boards.)
It would take a few more visits for me to confirm that La Pulperia's list remains current, which is of course the true test of seriousness. On the night I visited, after determining La Pulperia were out of, or unwilling to part with, a few interesting bottles of 2006 Claude Courtois reds, I simply went with my friend Karim Vionnet's reliably excellent "Vin de Kav" Chiroubles.
A former protogé of Guy Breton, Karim now has his own operation in Villié-Morgon, producing Chiroubles, Beaujolais Nouveau, Beaujolais Villages, and as of last year a Moulin-à-Vent.
I'll admit to having been a little underwhelmed by the Moulin-à-Vent, when I tasted it late last year. Just didn't seem to have the acid poise of his other cuvées. It seems very possible, however, that the vines have only recently come under his care, and that the cuvée will improve as he brings said vines under more enlightened agricultural practices.
In the meantime his 2010 "Vin de Cav" is still performing marvelously. It's what I want when I want red wine - ferrous, buoyant, and brightly acidic - and the price is invariably what I wish to pay when I have already paid for a steak's plane tickets.
To be fair, steak prices at La Pulperia are not appreciably higher than other natural wine steak destinations like Le Severo or Christophe or Bistrot Paul Bert. But the experience at La Pulperia is not yet of the same quality. Sadistic seating and a cackling bro-vibe are aspects of a restaurant I tend to tolerate for the sake of utterly unique cuisine or low prices or both. La Pulperia, for all the appeal of its estimable wine list, presently offers neither.* A true Parisian might think differently, however, so I wish La Pulperia nothing but success with that clientele.
11 rue Richard Lenoir
Tel: 01 40 09 03 70
A visit to Karim Vionnet's cellar in Villié-Morgon
Lunch with Karim Vionnet at Café de la Bascule in Fleurie
Differing cultural standards for sexist content on hilarious display at LeFooding, whose review of La Pulperia leads with commentary on, and a big photo of, the server's breasts.
An informative and well-written endorsement of La Pulperia at FoodIntelligence.
A level-headed review of La Pulperia at Mr.Lung.
A harsh assessment of La Pulperia's lunch at JohnTalbott, where the author did admittedly receive quite boring-looking food, worlds apart from most of the stuff I've seen served at dinner at the restaurant. Worth reading for the genuinely wise maxim at the end, his "rule 5bis."