Raw Materials at Cove
For a look at more of Cove's cozy quarters and fresh-caught seafood, browse through our slideshow.
At Cove, Jean-Philippe Gaston concentrates on a tenderloin-shaped piece of Verlasso salmon — furiously orange and marbled with only the most necessary rivulets of fat — with intense focus as he makes each quick cut. The salmon slices collapse to the cutting board like heavy silk drapes. The marbling is thin and intricate and imparts a plush feeling to the fish without coating your mouth in oil, unlike so much of the fatty salmon that's served in seafood and sushi restaurants these days. The Verlasso salmon, Gaston tells me as he gently plates each slice in a curving pattern across a stark white plate, is raised on a high-protein diet in the ocean.
"It tastes clean," he says in his gruff French accent. That clean flavor profile allows for the zinging, rocket-flare-bright pops of lime zest, brown sugar, caperberry salt and chiles to come through in the "quick cure" rub that Gaston uses to create his "PNWS," or Pacific Northwest salmon dish. Caperberries are dried out in a dehydrator and crushed into a fine powder that Gaston refers to as "salt," he explains, while hoja santa leaves are similarly dried until they resemble glossy green sheets of seaweed. The drying process candies the leaves, deepening and enhancing their natural sweet anise flavor, and they jut out of the dish like panes of stained glass. The herbal sweetness underscores the brown sugar in the salmon but balances it all out so that the fish is never overwhelmed by sugar.
Of the soft, fork-tender octopus that Gaston serves in a tumble — heads and tentacles diced and askew — he tells patrons at his station: "Frixos — you know, the guy who used to run Mykonos — told me that one day when I had my own place, he'd teach me his old family recipe from Greece. So one day when Cove opened, Frixos shows up with two octopus and says, 'Ready to learn?'"
Each dish at Cove, the new restaurant-within-a-restaurant tucked inside Haven, comes with a story. That's the way that Gaston and owner Randy Evans planned it when the duo — chef de cuisine and executive chef — decided to build a raw bar inside the existing restaurant, converting Haven's somewhat underused bar into a warm, self-contained cafe that's only open for dinner. You don't have to eat inside Cove — you can simply order from its smart cocktail and wine list — but you'd be missing out on one of the city's most immersive and subversive dining experiences, a meal that will turn any pre-existing notion you had about the depth and breadth of raw seafood and meat on its ear.
Be warned, though: You can't order Haven's food inside Cove and you can't order Cove's ceviches or sashimis or tiraditos inside Haven. But you can split the difference and enjoy two drastically different dining experiences under one roof in one night: Start with a few small dishes of freshly flown-in tuna crudo and some Shoregasm oysters from Prince Edward Island at Cove, then move into a bowl of wild boar chili and roasted quail with jalapeño-sausage dressing at Haven.
But I prefer to do it this way: Spend an entire evening at Cove, sipping on crisp Sauvignon Blanc or a pint of Real Ale Rio Blanco, while you watch Gaston work. Grab one of the four seats in front of his station, which is set up like a hybrid sushi bar and East Coast-style raw bar — complete with effusive display of oysters from all over the world and spindly crab legs in a brightly lit icebox — and call it an evening. When every dish is different from the last — a citrus-laced Tahitian-style poisson cru in coconut milk followed by that Grecian oktopodi krasato thick with warm thyme and oregano, for instance — it's easy to be captivated by Cove's short menu for an entire evening.
For a city on the coast, Houston can be puzzlingly lacking in interesting seafood places. There have long been stalwarts such as Goode Co. Seafood and Christie's — the latter since 1917, making it one of the city's oldest restaurants — and avid fans will make treks down to legendary seaside spots such as Gilhooley's and Gaido's. People like P.J. Stoops have made Gulf "trash fish" into a proud native foodstuff and there is no shortage of crawfish places — Cajun, Vietnamese or otherwise.
But not since Reef and chef Bryan Caswell's pioneering attitude toward Gulf fish has there been such a fascinating seafood restaurant as Cove. Part of the allure is the interaction with Gaston himself, which allows you to direct your own meal in any number of ways while learning — if you're interested — about the various raw fish and meat preparations that Gaston learned in his travels and stints at spots such as Kata Robata, Soma Sushi and, yes, Reef. If you're the quiet type, it's just as satisfying to watch Gaston work, folding those slips of fish into insouciant rosettes, bending them with his fingers into a form that's very much his own signature.
And part of Cove's draw is how different the seafood dishes are in a town that's obsessed with ceviche. It seems to be a requirement that every new restaurant include ceviche on its menu — regardless of whether it has any connection to the Mexican seafood concoction more substantial than sheer proximity to the country. Cove has only one ceviche on its menu, made with red snapper and served with all the traditional accoutrements. But it begs you to take it one, two, ten steps further and discover a whole world of raw preparations past simply ceviche and sashimi. Gaston has littered his menu with raw dishes from Fiji, Peru, Israel, Italy, Greece, Japan and more.
There's the Cook Islands dish I met for the first time back in November called ika mata, which piles red albacore tuna into a deep bowl and cooks the fish in a marinade of coconut milk, lemongrass and olive oil. A scatter of green onions and roasted peanuts give it snap, a dusting of edible flowers sets the tropical dish dancing. It's sweet and intensely herbal, with a floral astringency from the lemongrass that cuts through the sugary coconut broth, and like nothing I'd ever tasted before.
And there are raw dishes beyond just fish, too, like the tartare of velvety antelope that tasted of sweet young grass and clean, fresh beef under a fine snow of brash shallots and the meaty punch of Worcestershire sauce. There's an Italian carpaccio of beef heart that treats the thick, substantial organ like prosciutto or any other hard, cured meat and slices it thinly and neatly into ribbons. Unlike charcuterie, however, the raw meat of the heart is somewhat cooked by the citric acid in the lemon vinaigrette that's poured on top, the entire dish set off by rugged flakes of Maldon sea salt and robust, craggy shreds of Parmesan cheese.
The tough part here, however, is making a meal out of Cove's offerings. It's not difficult to do if you have the same penchant for seafood and raw dishes that brings you to sushi restaurants on a regular basis. And it's not difficult to do if you've got deep pockets. But building a meal substantial enough for a dinner — or rather suited to the Houstonian appetite for dinner, as it were — can be hard on your wallet. No dish is above $15 save a giant cheese and meat board, and the portions are more than generous — especially on the $4 to $6 cheese plates that come with giant rounds of Grayson or Little Boy Blue along with prosciutto, brioche toast points, quince paste and nuts — but it's easy to order five or six dishes and watch the tab build and build.
On the other hand, the prices are in line with the quality of the food you're receiving; let there be no qualms about that. At Kata Robata, for instance, chef Manabu Horiuchi chose Gaston's food from a blind taste test that included eight other potential sous chefs before selecting Gaston as his right-hand man. Hori-san was also the first sushi chef to recognize Gaston's talent enough to allow him — a non-Japanese person — behind the sushi bar. As a result, Gaston brings with him not only the skills acquired learning fish from a master, but connections to get the best stuff into Cove as well.
"They catch this tuna in the Pacific, load it off the boats that night and ship it to me overnight the next day," Gaston said one evening of a fine, fat piece of ruddy tuna that rested in his hands. "It's so fresh you can't even cut it for the first day," he said, laughing at this welcome problem. "Got to let that rigor mortis set in."
After fussing with the tuna the way a proud father shows off his son's baseball trophies, Gaston got to slicing it for a dish he calls "Chicken of the Sea," with a cheeky grin and a nod to Texas's own Jessica Simpson, who once memorably confused tuna for chicken. The tuna is formed into delicate curves before I know it, gliding in a long, elegant line across the plate. A drizzle of rich, golden olive oil is streamed onto the top. Pickled beech mushrooms are perched delicately among the ribbons of tuna. Gaston pulls a plastic tub of dehydrated brussels sprouts from his intricate mise en place and opens the top.
"Let me tell you about these little leaves," he says, plucking out a few for his dish. And another story begins.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.