Entering Le Pavillon, the latest restaurant by world-renowned chefDaniel Boulud, a journey through a dim staircase of green marble treads begins, ascending upward into a zen garden aerie—a dramatic chandelier of clear glass totems suspended from a double-height ceiling hovers over a bar surrounded by greenery. Behind it, the din and romance of Manhattan feels within arm’s reach, yet comfortably distant—seas of frenetic pedestrians, a cacophony of horns and sirens, and the Chrysler Building’s silvery Art Deco spire hovering above Grand Central Station set the celluloid scene. Anchoring the newly completed One Vanderbilt (designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox) at the crossroads of 42nd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue, Midtown’s new culinary oasis has arrived.
“Oasis” is an apt descriptor. Boulud enlisted the equally illustrious Isay Weinfeld to mastermind interiors for the soaring multi-story space, which feels far more intimate than it should thanks to an abundance of plants, muted tones, and clever architectural interventions that speak to his Brazilian roots. Situated one level above 42nd Street, it forges a welcome reprieve from the Midtown bustle. “Half of the room is dedicated to the garden,” Boulud says, pointing to a winding pathway that beckons guests from the entry back toward a secluded private dining area.
The other half houses the 120-seat restaurant and open-format bar that recalls Philip Johnson’s erstwhile Four Seasons Restaurant that recently underwent a refresh from Major Food Group. Though the slender footprint can make the bar feel cramped at times, a breathtaking glass chandelier glimmering overhead compensates for any spatial concessions. (It may appear Venetian, but each glass component is hand-made in Portland, Oregon.) After sunset, the visual effect is akin to stargazing, especially when backdropped by the faint, speckled glimmer of nearby Midtown office building windows and the newly completed Vanderbilt Plaza. A mid-level canopy, meanwhile, hovers over the dining area to make the interior feel far less soaring—and dampen the space’s echoey acoustics.
To Le Pavillon’s benefit, the grandiose gestures end there. Less seasoned architects may succumb to superficially nostalgic “old-world” design flourishes given the prime Manhattan real estate, but Weinfeld finds harmony in simplicity. Natural elements reign supreme, from olive trees and American walnut tables to gilded table lamps shaped like mushrooms. Unfussy furnishings—the custom Herman Miller cane chairs feature slightly lowered backs, and banquettes are upholstered in muted gray fabrics—never overstay their welcome. “The hardest thing to achieve in design is simplicity,” Boulud says. “With Isay, it always feels effortless.” He recalls narrowing down the designer pool from 20 contenders to a shortlist of five. “Some of them brought in elaborate books and presentations, but Isay made a little sketch of an idea and said ‘this is exactly what the space needs.’” He was hired on the spot.
The forest-like environs forecast a plant-friendly menu, which may seem counterintuitive for French fare but dovetail seamlessly with the seafood-focused three-course prix fixe dinner. “All my restaurants are driven by the seasons, ingredients, and French-American flavors,” Boulud says. “Here, I wanted to concentrate on seafood and take advantage of being on the Atlantic coast.”
A few highlights include grilled avocado dressed with einkorn berries and yogurt green goddess dressing, halibut topped with shiitakes and consommé, and eggplant stuffed with wild rice and charred broccolini. Boulud’s personal favorite is the Oyster Vanderbilt—a signature dish that pays homage to the 19th-century business magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, who lent his name to the titular building, avenue, and Rockefeller Center oyster bar, yet “never received his own oyster,” Boulud quips. Expect spoonfuls of creamy chowder served in a half shell gratinéed with parsley, herbs, and hazelnuts. “It’s something that will always stay on the menu,” he says. “A classic that will hopefully still be here 20 years from now.”
Prime real estate aside, Boulud has big shoes to fill. Le Pavillon also shares a name with both the French Pavilion’s eatery at the 1939 World’s Fair and the world-renowned standalone that restaurateur Henri Soulé debuted in Midtown Manhattan two years later, which essentially launched French cuisine in the United States. (The historian Paul Freedman memorialized the latter inTen Restaurants That Changed America.) This iteration of Le Pavillon, Boulud insists, will be different. “I’ve always admired French classic cuisine,” he tellsTown & Country, “and the name pays homage to the period of French dining in America that influenced restaurants all over the country.”
The elephant in the dining room, so to speak, is whether or not New Yorkers will readily embrace Boulud’s breed of elevated French cuisine again after more than a year of humbly home-cooked meals. The location—the foot of One Vanderbilt, a glassy new 67-story supertall that dwarfs the nearby Chrysler Building and brings 1.5 million square feet of office space to Midtown at the most inopportune time—poses further challenges. “Business is not all the way back, but we’re hopeful,” Boulud tellsGrub Street. “Every week, we’re one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake.” For Boulud, who has already started plotting a new restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental Residences in Beverly Hills and reimagining his inimitable Restaurant DANIEL on the Upper East Side, the only path is forward.