Jean-Philippe Gaston, the sous chef at Haven, is curling vermillion-colored slices of yellowfin tuna into elegant half-rosettes with his fingers before placing them gently on a white plate, all in a gently curving row. It doesn't take long; he plates as swiftly and surely as he cut the ribbons of fish from a thick tuna steak only a few minutes prior. And soon, the tuna is coated with a light drizzle of olive oil and topped with pickled mushrooms. But Gaston isn't finished.
He pulls dried brussels sprouts leaves from one plastic tub, dried jalapeños from another and, finally, dried radishes from a third. Gaston scatters the dehydrated vegetables across the top of the tuna for crunch and just the smallest amount of peppery heat from the radishes and jalapeños. He calls this dish the Chicken of the Sea after Jessica Simpson's notorious incident in which she confused chicken with tuna. It's just one of the raw dishes Gaston has created for the menu at Cove, the new all-raw bar inside Haven.
"No one's ever done a raw bar in Houston," says Gaston. At least, not a raw bar like Cove.
The idea first came to Gaston during a recent trip to New York City with Haven's executive chef and owner, Randy Evans. "In New York," says Gaston, "every restaurant has a raw bar." And those raw bars served more than just oysters and boiled crab -- they served raw preparations of all kinds, from simply shelled seafood to elegant European-style crudos and tartares.
Gaston and Evans quickly decided that this would be their next project together: creating a raw bar inside their own restaurant back in Houston, one that would span the globe when it came to raw preparations and one that would exploit the excellent seafood connections that both Evans and Gaston -- who was previously the sous chef at Kata Robata -- have at their disposal.
During a recent preview meal at Cove, which opened to the public yesterday evening, Gaston alternated between plating food and taking phone calls and text messages from the handful of seafood vendors that are bringing in interesting fish for him to try. He's already fallen in love with one fish, a sustainably farmed salmon from the Patagonian coast brought in by a company called Verlasso.
"I normally hate salmon," admitted Gaston. "It's too fatty. I don't like the feeling it leaves behind in my mouth -- and neither does he," he finished, gesturing to Evans, who was busily building a shelf to finish up the open kitchen space before its grand opening the next day.
But the Verlasso salmon, Gaston says, is raised on a high-protein diet that significantly decreases the greasy, fatty mouthfeel and instead creates a less marbled flesh that's rich yet clean-tasting. Gaston also has high hopes for what he calls "Rainforest tilapia," fish that's caught wild in the rainforests of Costa Rica where it swims in clean pools of rainwater.
For now, however, the menu features standbys like yellowfin tuna, raw oysters, octopus and King crab legs -- all prepared in a dozen different ways by the globally influenced Gaston.
"We have three dishes from each region of the world," he said, pointing to a menu that showed everything from a Greek-style oktapodi krasato to a Cook Islands comfort food classic, ika mata. But it's the hinava that's his favorite right now: Borneo-style "ceviche," prepared very simply with ginger, chiles and lime juice.
And in areas of the world where Gaston couldn't find a traditional raw dish, he created his own: There's a Moroccan-style raw fish preparation that incorporates a traditional chermoula marinade, for example. And Cove's menu is by no means limited to fish.
Under the "Four Legs" section of the small menu, Gaston plans on serving raw beef, veal, bison, ostrich and more. He's even serving raw cheeses to nibble on and raw cocktails to sip. These last items will be whipped up at the bar that's adjacent to Cove; both are tucked into the same glass-walled space that keeps it separate from the rest of Haven.
"We're not serving anything from Cove in Haven," said Evans. "It would just be too tough on the line." A line that's small and entirely heat-free, but which features the kind of up-close-and-personal experience that guests crave these days. The same kind of interaction with sushi chefs at Japanese restaurants can be had at Cove, although Gaston and Evans are both quick to stress that Cove is not a sushi bar. It's just sushi-like.
"It's a sushi joint kind of idea," said Gaston, where the dishes range between $8 and $12 and aren't necessarily intended to be a full meal. "You can have a few drinks, have some food and move on to the next place."
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And if you don't feel like driving, that next place could easily be Haven itself, where the menu of Texas and Southern classics gone modern couldn't be more different from Gaston's brown-sugar cured salmon served with dehydrated hoja santa leaves. Gaston and Evans hope that this little something different will bring a new audience to Haven and Cove -- one that's just as eager to experiment as they are.
"We don't want to just attract the foodies," said Gaston. "We want to attract everyone."