To dine at Daniel Boulud’s Le Pavillon in Midtown or James Kent’s Saga in the Financial District means to spend a lot of money on the usual luxuries: white truffles, Dover sole, and roast duck. But the true star at each venue is the storied New York skyline, a collection of slinky skyscrapers and raffish low-rises.
Consider Le Pavillon at One Vanderbilt, where a seafood-heavy French dinner starts at $125. The interior designers positioned the staircase in such a way that when you begin your ascent to the second-floor dining room, the walls crop out everything but the top of the Chrysler Building, the Art Deco spire doing its best impression of a fictional 1920s rocket ship. Then, as you reach the bar, windows as large as Times Square billboards reveal Grand Central Terminal in all its Beaux-Arts glory. The commuter station seems to glow like the Temple of Dendur.
Or take Saga, where the modern European tasting runs $245. Hosts escort you, upon arrival, to the building’s 63rd-floor terrace, where you admire a helicopter view of Manhattan. To the north is the Gehry building, its wavy exterior pulsating like a metallic shockwave. Just behind that masterpiece is the new David Adjaye tower, its rough concrete surfaces standing in contrast to all the smooth glass, steel, and terra-cotta-clad buildings nearby.
These aren’t the fleeting glimpses of New York one encounters while flying into LaGuardia. These are up close and personal views that let you ogle the beautiful imperfections of a vertical city — the way one might gaze at brushstrokes on a painting. It’s as if you’re dining next to a Jackson Pollock projected onto the world’s largest movie screen. And if you simply swing by the bar at either venue, you can enjoy the panoramas for the price of a gin fizz or glass of blanc de blancs.
Whether a full-fledged dinner for two will induce the same sense of awe as the views is a more layered question, however. Over the past 15 years, a slew of local restaurants have pushed diners to think of elegant eating in ways that go beyond the scope of traditional fine dining. A prominent class of small-plates places now provide many of the same gustatory pleasures as more formal venues, but often outside of a European-Japanese framework — and at lower prices. Those leaner venues typically lack the posh environs of, say, a Midtown palace where the entire dining room feels like center orchestra seating for a fairytale view of Central Park. And that’s okay. Patrons, in exchange for fewer creature comforts, are packing a crop of modern Mexican, Vietnamese American, Oaxacan, and cutting-edge Italian-French spots that offer less fuss, looser dress codes, and affordable-ish set-menus. Earlier in the summer, while sitting in a hot outdoor garden, I enjoyed an excellent tasting menu that cost less than most white truffle supplements.
Those larger trends aren’t new, however. What’s changed in recent months is the increasingly prohibitive pricing at some of the city’s top Gallic and Japanese restaurants, a development that has set the bar higher than ever on the is it worth it factor. The astronomical cost of dining out — often starting at the equivalent of a PlayStation 5 console — becomes even more challenging as the most opulent operators adopt nonrefundable booking policies, a trend in fine dining as owners seek to transfer more of the economic risk of a given reservation from the restaurant to the diner.
It’s against this backdrop that a blowout dinner shifts from being a predictable, once-a-year splurge to a more complicated financial decision, even when there’s a view like no other. Both Saga and Le Pavillon, for their part, act as relevant paradigms for two different sides of that value coin. Saga makes a solid argument for a more innovative model of extravagant eating than its peers — with one of the city’s best new caviar courses — although some folks will find the strict reservation policies financially hazardous. Le Pavillon, by contrast, functions as a staid effort to attract a business-class clientele with the Daniel Boulud brand. It is a study in tired, phoned-in French fare. It is fine dining as a monument to itself.
After a Saga staffer brings you in from the outdoor terrace, they lead you into a small room and, after a quick amuse, garnish your table with a presentation of fluke six ways. The fish is kombu-cured and rolled into shiso (light and minty); chopped and stuffed into a cucumber (surprise: it’s cucumber-y); infused into a Peruvian leche du tigre (bright and lime-y); slid into a feuille de brick purse and topped with trout roe (crisp and briny); bruleed on the rib with mushroom XO sauce (umami-packed); and cooked on the bone as an escabeche (rich and gelatinous). If the pervasiveness of assorted white flatfish at fancy spots sometimes feels like a secret handshake among bankers, a way to say “we’re all bland, but we don’t care because we make so much money,” the same class of fish at Saga feels like an effort to challenge diners just a touch. It’s a way for the chef to announce that he can take a ubiquitous item and make it feel new and relevant.
Those who seek out an evening at the sky-high fine dining spot should know the following: Reservations for the 56-seat dining rooms disappear within minutes of their release. Within that short time frame, you’ll also need to prepay the full menu price, which is nonrefundable. And since the minimum reservation size is two people, dinner technically starts at $633 after tax and tip. Add on wine pairings and your bill will easily scratch at $1,000.
Now here’s the good news: My nine-course dinner at Saga just about kept pace with pre-pandemic Le Bernardin and Atomix in terms of its creative, internationally minded ethos. Or put more bluntly: It was one of my favorite fancy meals in recent memory.
Chef Kent spent years working at Eleven Madison Park’s during that venue’s pre-vegan era, but in 2019 he teamed up with Jeff Katz of Del Posto fame to open Crown Shy, a modern American spot on the ground floor of 70 Pine in the Financial District. Two years later, the duo launched Saga 63 floors up in the same building, and it is, without question, where Kent is doing the best cooking of his career. He serves the type of edgy-yet-beautiful small plates that feel like what the late Joël Robuchon would’ve put out if he weren’t cooking for people who simply wanted more of the same.
One of the few choices on Saga’s set menu involves whether to add a $100 truffle supplement to a savory custard. I went without that pricey supplement and still enjoyed one of the best fungi dishes of the past few years: The chawanmushi-esque preparation, studded with warm foie gras and garnished with thinly shaved matsutakes, packed such a piney punch it almost felt like a Christmas tree course.
Caviar doesn’t command a supplement; Saga anoints a tomagoyaki-like egg cake with an ample teaspoon of good roe. The firm beads flaunt a dark golden hue; they release a precise dose of rich, maritime oils that recall the mist of a wave and good sardines. Then comes something unexpected — a gently sandy crunch, thanks to brown butter solids hidden underneath the cake. Very cool.
Kent is just as adept, however, in imbuing less-expensive ingredients with a sense of luxury. The kitchen winnows down and roasts a squash until it takes on the sunset color of a halved apricot. Saga tames the sweetness with a scattering of sour pomegranate seeds and pear relish. It is a stunner of a salad course.
Does a coconut curry with (powerfully oceanic) lobster sting the tongue with a surprising dose of chile? It does, especially after you work a bit to pop the meat out of the shell. Does the spice in a harissa yogurt serve to tame the fatty dry-aged duck breast with sous-vide leg roulade? Brilliantly so, and no less powerfully when you wrap the flesh in a buttery m’smen flatbread. Super-fancy dining in New York tends to be as scared of heat as it is of offal, too many bones, and too much funk. And while Kent doesn’t delve into these culinary categories with the same gusto of an izakaya chef, he certainly amps things higher up on the flavor scale than most of his peers in the $500-plus range.
One can expect the other flourishes of an Eleven Madison-alum meal. There will be tableside speeches, and multiple references to how the chef’s father grew up in Morocco, inspiring some of Kent’s fare. Diners will also be brought through the kitchen to a solarium where a staffer will pour you saccharine mint tea and launch into another discursive inquiry into the chef’s love for North Africa. A few minutes later, you’re back at your table, letting a riesling-poached pear stuffed with triple-cream goat cheese zing your mouth like a Sour Patch kid. The windows aren’t as roomy here as at Le Pavillon, but that’s okay because the food is enough to command your attention. And anyway, after your meal a staffer will escort you one floor up to the Overstory cocktail bar, where you can walk out on an even higher terrace and take in the city one more time.
Some of the best restaurants of the sprawling Boulud empire have long served as a strong case for classically fancy French fare. As a young critic, I remember how the chef’s eponymous Upper East Side flagship sold me on the joys of seabass with a meaty syrah reduction. I recall Bar Boulud converting me to the wonders of jiggly head cheese and funky pate grand-mere. And how could anyone forget the simple pleasures of airy baked madeleines at Cafe Boulud? The chef’s celebrated history as a champion of Gallic foodways — and his leadership role in helping the U.S. win gold at a certain cooking competition — would lead one to believe that there is no better chef to take on the name Le Pavillon name. Indeed, Le Pavillon in midcentury New York was a seminal institution that helped spread the gospel of haute via its cadre of chefs and its tyrannical proprietor, Henri Soulé.
Alas, Le Pavillon in 2021 is an institution that brings indistinct continental cuisine to a shiny slice of Midtown. It feels very white, a term that I’m using quite literally. Here are three of the five savory courses on the $195 tasting: a raw slice of yuzu-cured fluke, a white flatfish. A mushroom broth bathing a filet of halibut, another white flatfish. A slice of mushroom-crusted Dover sole, a super-fancy white flatfish. That’s all in addition to the seared scallop with jamon iberico and a single creamed oyster. As fancy seafood chefs increasingly dabble in beguilingly complex sauces from around the world, powerfully flavored creatures like mackerel, and gelatinous cuts like head and collar, Boulud and crew have put together a coastal restaurant for people who don’t like the taste of fish.
The raw fluke, enlivened elsewhere with acidity or crunch, is simply a limp cut of flesh at Le Pavillon; I could wax poetic about the caviar garnish, but the server admitted it was a gift from the kitchen rather than a typical inclusion for this dish. Boulud’s forgettable scallop, in turn, sported all the complexity of a Whole Foods mollusk. And while maitake broth provided warming sustenance to a small halibut fllet, it couldn’t detract from the pedestrian flavors and textures of yet another flatfish.
Such mediocrity isn’t the worst thing when the electric lights of the Chrysler building have you in a trance, when you watch folks ascend to the dining room dressed only slightly less formally than for prom. Still, one should expect more from a restaurateur like Boulud.
Working against matters — for those who don’t do the tasting — is the inconsistency of the short set menu. A kitchen that serves a 12-course meal can experiment and miss a few times. But with just two savory dishes on the three-course prix fixe, Boulud has less room for error, which is why it stings when you realize a bowl of torchetti with crab sauce that’s not very crabby — it’s the type of dish one might encounter at a mid-range osteria — constitutes 50 percent of your non-dessert eating. How is it that moules billi bi, a shellfish soup famous for its aromatic liquor, is mostly a giant bowl of one-note cream with a few plump mussels? How is it that such a pricey roast duck tastes like literally any other roast duck?
The room itself is worthy of higher praise. A well-manicured garden flanks the length of the space, while a soaring sloped ceiling — 75 feet high in sections — draws the eyes upward toward the majestic skyline. That brings up a particularly generous aspect of the restaurant: Le Pavillon offers the best views not from the tables, but rather, from the square-shaped bar. The smart move is to sit here as a walk-in (rather than reserving a few months out), and order the onion tart, which balances the sweetness of the namesake allium with the powerful barnyard punch of an Epoisses emulsion. Then move onto the beautiful Dover sole, which seems to bounce with that preternatural springiness and scallopy sweetness that makes this fish such a wonderful indulgence at times. A touch of earthy truffle sauce amps up the luxury factor even further, while hazelnuts add crunch. Finish off with a delicate noisette tart whose crispness recalls a Ferrero Rocher.
One can admittedly enjoy Dover sole and pretty chocolate desserts throughout New York, but here, at this particular bar, the entire two-hour affair can feel quite special. Even if the lobster with sauce Americaine packs the mild, middle-of-the-road flavors you might expect from an everyday brasserie, there’s something to be said for enjoying a bit of luxury while overlooking some of the city’s great buildings.
When dining at these elevated restaurants, it’s hard not to wonder whether the city’s real estate developers couldn’t find a way to showcase a deeper breadth of cuisines in spaces known for their skyline panoramas. That is to say: You don’t often see the operators of modern Mexican, South Asian, or regional Chinese spots landing rooftop deals in the shadow of the Empire State Building. Those planning to attend an anniversary dinner or a graduation lunch at a restaurant known for its sprawling views of the city will frequently come up with a list of venues — Per Se, the River Cafe, Peak NYC, One Dine, or Saga and Le Pavillon — that are generally European-American in their leanings, with a few exceptions here and there.
It’s disheartening that so many folks experiencing life events at these venues will link their brief time looking out over one of New York’s most defining features — its ragtag collection of buildings and architectural styles cobbled together over the centuries — back to a somewhat uniform style of dining. One hopes that the city’s landlords would find a way to give that next big rooftop space to folks who serve dishes that better represents more of our city’s diverse populace. But for now, I’d say Saga tips its hat in a promising direction, which it executes with thrilling finesse.