On Saturday, the city closed a swath of East 42nd Street because chef Daniel Boulud’s newest project, Le Pavillon, was expecting an unusual delivery: 10,000 pounds of black olive trees trucked in from Florida.
A massive crane hoisted the 20-foot-tall trees to a group of workers perched on a second-story platform at One Vanderbilt — a $3.3 billion office tower overlooking Grand Central Terminal that developer SL Green unveiled last fall. The trees were then funneled into the 1,400-foot-tall tower through a window that had been removed specifically for the purpose.
Once inside, the olive trees were placed in 3-feet-deep pits dug through the floor of the restaurant, where they will grow using special “grow lights” to mimic their natural habitat. Thousands of pounds of soil was brought in to fill the holes and cover their roots — one wheelbarrow at a time.
When Le Pavillon opens next month, the 11,000-foot, 100-seat restaurant with 30-foot bar designed by Isay Weinfeld will boast a flowering garden with trees bifurcating the glass dining room. A large communal-style table will be centered near the trees. Ceiling heights will rise to 58 feet.
Even for Boulud — a world-famous chef with a restaurant empire that spans from New York to Dubai — it’s an impressive undertaking, one that has been three years in the making in partnership with SL Green.
“An opportunity to create a great restaurant like this comes once every 30 or 40 years,” Boulud told Side Dish during an exclusive tour of the eatery as it gears up to open its doors on May 25 for dinner service four or five nights a week, with lunch and breakfast service beginning in the fall.
But Le Pavillon, which is named after the city’s first haute French restaurant in 1941, is also launching at a historically difficult time for Midtown Manhattan, an area that caters primarily to tourists and office workers and has therefore been decimated by the pandemic.
Some 90 percent of Manhattan office workers continued to work remotely through March, according to the Partnership for New York City. By September, less than half — or just 45 percent — are expected to be back at their desks, the organization said citing surveys of major employers.
Tourism is coming back faster, but hotel occupancy only stood at a recent high of 47 percent in mid-March.
Boulud — who’s flagship and eponymous name restaurant Daniel boasts two Michelin stars — seems unphased. He said he “believes” in NYC and its ability to come back stronger just like it did after 9/11 and the Great Recession of 2008.
“New York has been through highs and lows, but I am confident that if there is one city in the world able to turn things around, to bring back the talent and business, and reinvent itself and thrive, it’s New York,” Boulud said.
Boulud is so gungho for the opening he invited legendary chef Jaques Pepin, 85, to talk to the staff on orientation day about what it was like to be a young chef working at Le Pavillon, which closed eight years before Boulud arrived in NYC from France in 1980.
“I like the fact that it was a long time ago and yet it wasn’t so long ago that I couldn’t be connected to people and stories from that era,” Boulud said.
And he insisted that the pandemic has not at all altered his vision for Le Pavillon, which has only been delayed by three months — even if his plan to build a garden inside a skyscraper is now on trend with the post-pandemic world.
“I always felt the space was so big we’d need to bring an ‘oasis of nature’ inside, while respecting the architecture of the building,” Boulud said of the trees.
The restaurant’s partners — SL Green, which is funding most of it, and Boulud’s company Dinex — declined to say how much the restaurant build out is expected to cost. SL Green called the expense a ‘nominal percentage” of its overall investment in One Vanderbilt, which is 73.7 percent leased.
The menu will be seasonal and focused on seafood and vegetables “from Maine to Maryland,” along with some simple grilled and rotisserie dishes. Boulud is also working on his own dish to rival oysters Rockefeller, which he will dub oysters Vanderbilt, and an updated chilled pea soup that Boulud first put on the menu when he opened Daniel in May 1993.
Standing outside of One Vanderbilt as its shiny glass facade reflected the image of the Chrysler building, passersby cheered Boulud as a photographer snapped away. For a moment he stared at a black cast iron Eagle — one of the originals from Grand Central Station — perched on a rail across from him.
“Maybe we’ll call it the Eagle Bar,” Boulud mused, picking up on an earlier conversation about-as-yet unnamed bar instead Le Pavillon.
What will his first drink be at the Eagle Bar? “A Manhattan,” he said without skipping a beat.