This week, we've been talking to Jean-Philippe Gaston of Cove, one of those under-the-radar chefs who like to let their work speak for itself. Before we start our tasting, I notice his shelf full of cookbooks. Gaston pulls one down from the pile, the gold macramé-patterned binding slightly ripped. He says it's an original-edition cookbook by the surrealist painter Salvador Dalí, worth about $600. As he flips through the pages, he notes the imagery, the fact that Dalí is not just a painter but an accomplished sketch artist and chef. Then he pulls down a book by Thierry Marx, the executive chef of the Mandarin Oriental in Paris, whose photos are like studies in food photography, simple and minimalist yet quietly captivating.
Gaston's plates are all these things -- artistic, minimalist, simple and captivating. His aesthetic sensibility is that of a painter. There are splashes of color, bright pops of reds, purples, magentas. "I start composing the dishes in my head, and then I start thinking of what ingredients I have in the restaurant that have those colors," he says.
"If I want bright purple, I have beets, I have purple broccoli. If I want greens, I have spinach, kale and stuff from the gardens to use. If I want bright orange, I have carrots and sweet potatoes. So then you start thinking about textures, and how smooth do you want them to look, and how all those vegetables work together. And then you think of the fish. I'd probably use a lighter fish with a beet flavor. And eventually you build a dish like that, so there's not really a recipe per se; it's more like drawing a painting -- you start picturing colors and shapes, and then you put it all together."
We began with a scallops dish, which is classified on the menu as a Thai dish but is loosely based on the Mexican flavors from the fruit vendors who sell pineapple on a stick. Freshly sliced scallop sashimi was topped with mango and pineapple marinated with a bit of yuzu and sriracha and finished off with olive oil, crushed sea salt and fresh mint from their garden. The scallop flesh was silky and ever so slightly sweet on its own, the spicy mango and pineapple adding a stronger dose of sweet that was almost too much until you got a bit of the fresh mint. Like a burst of fresh-breath spray, the mint immediately neutralized the sweetness and left a bright, minty essence on the palate.
To follow, we tried the ika mata, essentially an albacore tune poke served in a bowl. A recipe that Gaston found in the Cook Islands, the fish was marinated à la minute in a light coconut broth and mixed with lemongrass, olive oil and green onions and dusted with crusted peanuts. For added flair, Gaston decorated the dish with edible flowers in bright yellow and magenta, the colors striking against the milky chunks of tuna. I enjoyed how the coconut-peanut combination evoked the tropics, making me feel like I was on vacation somewhere near a beach. Texturally, the peanuts provided a pleasing contrast to the softness of the albacore.
I watched as Gaston pulled out a huge jar of pre-prepared octopus, the already legendary Oktapodi Krasato. The Greek recipe had a great back story, because it wasn't his. Even so, he said he was proud to serve it. "Six years ago, when I met Frixos (a local fish supplier), he said, 'The day you open your own place, I'm going to give you my family recipe.' Then, a month before we opened, he showed up with octopus in his hand and said, 'We're cooking, baby.' So he gave me his recipe and now it's mine." The generous mound of octopus was tender and flavorful, rich with this tangy, almost pickled flavor that was quintessentially Mediterranean and absolutely delicious. So generous was the serving that it could have easily fed three or four, but two of us finished it with gusto.
The sleeper hit of the evening came next, a lionfish with quinoa tabbouleh inspired by Israel. Entitled "Mana," my first bite of the citrus-pepper marinated fish was followed by an immediate exclamation of "Wow!" The citrus flavor was soft and spicy, the acid balance exactly as it should be, while the quinoa tabbouleh, which I would never have ordered because I don't really like quinoa, was lap-up-the-last-grain delicious.
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We ended the night with a simple crudo from Italy, served in a bowl and steeped in the flavor of olive oil. Distinctly Italian in spirit and execution, its personality was its own, which was remarkable considering the number of dishes we'd tried.
We'd taken a journey around the world, from Thailand to the Cook Islands in the South Pacific, back to Greece, over to Israel, and then mainland Europe via Italy. I was replete by the meal's end, but my eyes were still hungry, taking in a beautifully plated Hinava from Borneo before I put my camera down to rest.
"Everybody's tongue reacts to the same five components: the spicy, bitter, sweet, salty and umami, which if you put them all together makes the perfect dish," said Gaston. I had five perfect dishes that night, and can't wait to try the rest.