I admit I was skeptical about Haven's plans to install a self-contained raw bar inside the restaurant's former bar space, with its own chef, its own menu and its own global seafood and ingredient sourcing. The concept didn't seem to jibe neatly with Haven's local, Southern/Gulf Coast bent; and I wondered if having two restaurants under the same room would feel jangly, somehow.
Well. My first visit to Cove Cold Bar sent my misgivings flying. Jean-Philippe Gaston, who was Haven's sous chef, has made this nifty realigned space and eclectic idea his own, and he's busy composing exciting ceviches, crudos, tartares, tatakis and tiraditos that taste like the dishes he was born to do.
Case in point: his Pacific Northwest salmon quick-cured with lemon-lime zest, caperberry salt and a bit of brown sugar, the precisely cut fish set off with touches that make the dish pure Houston: snappy green chiles and candied hoja santa leaves, each fragile bite releasing that distinctive, smoky root-beer taste.
Or how about a carpaccio of dense, satin-smooth beef heart jumping with sea salt and lemon vinaigrette, set off by a deft play of cracked pepper, caperberry and Parmesan shavings?
This is excellent stuff. So is the Tahitian-influenced crudo of citrus-zapped Rainforest Tilapia. That's right, tilapia: the farmed African freshwater fish that is so often bland and muddy-tasting that I avoid it on principle. Gaston told me last month that he'd found a Costa Rican version, raised in a descending series of free-running rainforest pools, that would change my mind. I didn't believe him.
I do now. The pearlescent pink slices of raw tilapia retained a slight, lovely crunch to each bite, and the flavor rang clear and true — even in a context of ginger, olive oil, orange, a bit of green chile and a touch of coconut milk, an ingredient that can all too easily get out of hand.
I snagged a few bites of veal tataki, the cubed meat slicked with chili oil and quail egg yolk, from a friend who showed up and sat next to me at the counter. I loved that, too, its soy and ginger seasoning sparked with chopped pickle and green onion.
Watching Gaston's ever-moving hands hovering over the mis-en-place set out in full view behind the counter, and tasting the $10 to $15 plates that result, you can see his influences coming together. He's the French-trained chef who ran the hot kitchen at Kata Robata under Manabu Horiuchi, who is Houston's finest sushi chef, a master at breaking down a fish.
He's rooted in a city where ceviches, tiraditos and crudos have blossomed as a form in recent years, spurred by the burgeoning availability of Gulf bycatch, those lesser-known species that long were ignored. He's sampled the wares of leading chefs working the genre, from Jonathan Jones to the Uchi guys and beyond.
He's absorbed the local-ingredient ethic of Haven and researched his own sources for the more far-reaching cold bar: cheeses from Houston Dairymaids; a type of farmed salmon that actually sings; meats that have been carefully raised.
Now he's bringing it all back home in a very Houston fashion, with a nice boost from the thoughtful beverage program superintended by Haven's service manager, Linda Salinas. I found that I liked the partial view into the mothership from the cold bar, and the unexpected sense of security I got from having the well-run vibe of Haven humming in the shared air.
Gaston's work here shows an admirable cleanliness despite its complexity, although I did find myself wishing he'd lay off the edible flowers a bit. Yes, they're pretty; but they're pretty much window dressing for food that doesn't need it.
I do love what Gaston's doing with a dehydrator and Haven's repertoire of local herbs and vegetables, though. His red albacore tightened with lime, salt and a hint of sugar could stand on its own, but it acquires a fuller, earthier dimension (and surprise) with dehydrated squash and jalapeño chips as thin as paper.
I left eager to work my way through the entire menu of two dozen composed dishes and desserts, plus an assortment of cold seafood bowls and shellfish items from the ice-filled cold case that glows, like some pirate's treasure chest, behind the bar — its upraised lid scrawled with a magic-markered list of the day's catch. Oysters, crab, shrimp and lobster may end up here depending on the day. But be warned: we're talking $22 and up per dozen, even for Galveston Bay and Louisiana oysters.
Still, you don't have to drop a bundle to pop in for a single, glorious cold dish and a suitable glass of wine. Only one problem with that plan: I found it hard to stop ordering once I'd started.
Cove Cold Bar at Haven restaurant: 2502 Algerian Way, 713-581-6101
Dinner only: 4 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday—Thursday and 4 p.m.—11 p.m. Friday-Saturday