Jean-Philippe Gaston isn't the talkative type. Standing in front of a packed house last night, the chef de cuisine at Cove—the standalone raw bar tucked inside Haven—grinned shyly as he described the first dish of a 12-course tasting menu: ham and eggs.
"I'm not very creative," Gaston demurred in his signature rough accent, a blend of French and Spanish and Texan that reflects his diverse upbringing, but this was a lie. Gaston is one of the most creative chefs in Houston today, and the new Wednesday-only tasting menus he's serving are a beautiful reflection of that talent.
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"I'm not very good at naming dishes," he explained a few courses later, while describing an unnamed dish of striped marlin sashimi decorated in signature Gaston style with dehydrated vegetables, roasted beet powder and a few dashes of Maldon sea salt and sweet olive oil. But what the plate is called hardly matters when the food is this good.
Gaston's extensive experience in seafood started with a stint under Robert Gadsby when the controversial chef was still working in Houston at Noé. Gaston refined his skills at Reef, and then at Kata Robata—two restaurants noted for their fish, although drastically different in tone and cuisine. At Reef, Gaston became more familiar with the Gulf bycatch and other "trash fish" chef Bryan Caswell popularized. At Kata Robata, Gaston studied under Houston's incontroveritble sushi master, Manubu Horiuchi; the two remain close friends to this day.
In fact, Gaston had borrowed some liquid nitrogen from Hori-san for last Wednesday's tasting menu—its inaugural evening—but had to let it sit too long and lost half of the mixture to evaporation. This week, he'd corrected a few more mistakes: making sure to prep his panini press in the small, open kitchen at Cove on which to grill his smoked pork belly and pickled peach kebabs so he wouldn't have to run back and forth between Haven's full kitchen and his own, figuring out the perfect ratio of caramel to foie gras for his pistachio-crusted foie gras lollipops, served on a swoop of dark red cherry syrup.
It's a learning process for Gaston, who's ambitiously tackling both 6-course and 12-course tasting menus each week. And although Gaston seemed a bit frazzled near the end, the food never suffered.
My friends and I delighted in the "Akaushi sheets" of medium-rare beef that had been thinly sliced and arranged like yards of thick silk on a white plate, flanking a cauliflower gratin and polished off with swigs of barely chilled Lucas & Lewellen Pinot Noir. We thrilled at the texture and tart smack of a spicy tomato consommé aspic that floated on a glittering pool of yuzu vinaigrette, the acidity of the dish offset sweetly with a creamy glass of Snow Maiden nigori sake.
While the tasting menus aren't cheap—$65 for the six-course affair and $95 for the 12-course—they're actually a bargain when you consider the amount of dishes you'd have to order a la carte to match the amount and quality of what Gaston serves on a Wednesday night. One of my favorite dishes, the coconut milk-based poisson cru, costs $13. Another, the "chicken of the sea" with big-eye tuna and pickled beech mushrooms and dehyrdated brussels sprouts chips, is $16. By comparison, you'll pay less than $8 a dish for the 12-course tasting menu, and Gaston doesn't skimp on the servings.
The tasting menu is also a means by which Gaston can unleash himself a bit from the already high-concept menu at Cove and soar into the stratosphere. My colleague, Robb Walsh, recently compared Cove on a regular night to Nobu—the eponymous restaurant of chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa—who's famous for combining Japanese and Peruvian dishes into one harmonious, fish-forward cuisine: tiraditos and sushi, ceviche and sashimi all in one stunning menu.
Gaston takes this one step further at Cove, where he combines his own world travels and favorite cuisines into a menu that's held together by a thread of ultra-fresh seafood, whether it's Greek-style octopus marinated in red wine and olive oil or ika mata from the Cook Islands, with pomfret suspended in a tropical broth of lemongrass, coconut milk, and roasted peanuts.
You'll find hints of these dishes on the Wednesday night tasting menus, but Gaston expands his techniques to include other proteins (and other world influnces) as well: cured La Quercia speck served alongside two kinds of eggs for that ham and eggs dish: emerald green pearls of caviar and snowy shavings of hard-boiled egg atop a dill crème fraîche. Or a breakfast dish of dashi-scented scrambled eggs toped with crunchy panes of smoked chicken chicharrones, wispy threads of rousong (a.k.a. pork floss), and jerky-like morsels of machaca—all of which Gaston makes himself.
That breakfast dish last night was served with a Maple Leaf cocktail, the maple syrup and cinnamon bouncing off the bourbon and lemon juice to make for a surprisingly suitable match-up: neither drink nor dish was entirely breakfast nor entirely dinner, but simply straddling a playful line that set the tone for the entire dinner.
Those beverage pairings—which run the gamut from wine and beer to cocktails and sake—cost $30 extra, but the pairings are so well-planned that I absolutely recommend going the extra mile if you've got the cash to spare.
Right now, Gaston is creating and posting the weekly tasting menus by Friday of the week before, so diners can check out the courses before committing to dinner—and you do have to commit. Reservations are required for the dinner, which starts promptly at 7 p.m. and runs roughly three to four hours, depending on how good of a time you're having.
And trust me: between watching Gaston and his team perform their intricate work on the line that's visible from the entire restaurant and enjoying the fruits of their labor, you will have a good time. Most importantly, you'll have a meal you won't soon forget (and pay a lot less than you would at Nobu).