Pot Luck

Restaurants Within Restaurants: Cove Is On the Cutting Edge

Whether it's a manifestation of chefs' ADD or a new dining trend to look for in the coming years, the restaurant-within-a-restaurant concept has hit Houston, which is now home to two such venues: Cove and The Pass.

The Pass, which is technically side-by-side with Provisions, leans more toward the "traditional" means in which these Inception-like restaurants work. Take the reservations-only Blanca behind Roberta's -- a casual pizzeria -- in Brooklyn, for example. Blanca seats only 12 guests per night and charges $180 for a tasting menu that Andrew Knowlton called "dinner theater at its finest" in Bon Appetit last year. The two spaces -- The Pass and Blanca -- even bear a passing resemblance to one another in their starkly modern spaces, although Blanca features more wood tones and leather while The Pass is all black, white and steel.

Similar concepts can be found at other restaurant-within-a-restaurant spaces throughout the United States: Maine chef David Turin opened David's Opus 10 late last year inside his eponymous Portland restaurant, David's, and serves his $55 prix fixe menu to only 18 people per night. And in the other Portland across the country, chef Trent Pierce opened Roe inside of his pre-existing restaurant, Fins, and began to experiment with everything a small space allows chefs to do.

"I wanted to create a miniature experience of what you would have if you went into Le Bernardin," Pierce told Michael Russell at The Oregonian.

Cove -- the subject of this week's cafe review -- is closer to Roe in concept than it is to places such as Blanca, but in a way that's uniquely Houstonian.

Whereas a table at Blanca, Roe, The Pass or any other such restaurant-within-a-restaurant requires reservations -- often weeks in advance -- Cove is completely accessible from the moment it opens at 4 p.m. each day until it closes. It has to be, really; it still serves as Haven's bar. And that's the way it was intended: as more of a raw bar than a super-serious standalone restaurant, and yet it can function as both.

Cove is a Russian nesting doll of sorts, built into Haven with the same wood-and-glass motif that's repeated throughout the main restaurant. You can walk inside and grab pre-dinner cocktails at the bar, or take a seat in front of sous chef Jean-Philippe Gaston's station and have an entirely different meal here than you would at comfort-food focused Haven. But there are no tasting menus here, and nothing is prohibitively priced.

And here is yet another way in which Cove is unique: Chef Randy Evans, who runs and co-owns Haven, is not the chef at Cove. Cove is not a side project for Evans to futz around with because he's bored on the main line, nor a way for him to play at being Daniel Boulud. (The Pass, it should be noted, was always meant as a companion to Provisions -- not as a side project -- and is entirely cohesive in its space.)

Cove is a joint venture between Evans and Gaston, his sous chef, who was eager to make use of the years of raw seafood skills he'd obtained working at restaurants like Kata Robata and Soma Sushi. The two men also desired a way to bring the raw bar -- an accepted restaurant accompaniment in cities such as New York and San Francisco -- to Houston.

Thus, Cove was born.

It may seem entirely dichotomous to have a raw bar -- especially one that features raw preparations from the world over -- inside a restaurant known for its farm-to-table twists on Texan and Southern standards. But perhaps because of the fond relationship that exists between Evans and Gaston, it works. Evans often pops into Cove and tuts over the place like a fond older brother, while Gaston -- always serious, in contrast with Evans' boisterous personality -- rarely breaks character as he dishes up dazzling plates of raw albacore tuna in a coconut milk broth ringed with edible flowers or a tartare of antelope topped with a single quail egg and dried caperberries that Gaston has ground into a fine "salt."

What makes Cove interesting to me is the many ways in which it can be used by various diners, and this is also what makes is so strikingly different. You can have an appetizer here before dinner at Haven. You can have a full meal here under the guidance of Gaston, especially when seated directly in front of him and his colorful spread of mise en place. You can meet here for happy hour drinks and light bites before moving on elsewhere. Or you can take advantage of the reverse happy hour and enjoy a light, late-night dinner unlike any other you'll find in Houston from 9 p.m. until Cove closes (which is midnight on Fridays and Saturdays). There's not really a wrong way to do things here.

This, coupled with the relaxed feel of the place, make Cove ideal for seafood-loving Houstonians. I hope, however, that diners aren't too flummoxed by the fact that Cove really is a standalone restaurant, despite being situated inside Haven. The two don't share a kitchen and you can't order Haven's food inside Cove (or vice versa).

That may be, in fact, the only way in which Cove is like any of the other restaurants-within-restaurants that have opened in the past few years. And that suits idiosyncratic Houston just fine.

For more on Cove, read this week's cafe review or browse through our slideshow.

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Katharine Shilcutt