The path to our dreams can be a lengthy journey, full of twists and turns, maybe even a setback or two along the way. We learn as we go. Our dreams evolve; they crystallize. We envision ourselves in the future we want, and we make it happen. The opening of alaMar in Oakland is the realization of just such a dream: that of Chef Nelson German.

Chef German’s journey began some thirteen years ago in New York City, while learning to cook with his Dominican mother, who taught him the secrets of her braised oxtail over her stove in the Washington Heights neighborhood where he was raised. He still makes the oxtail, but a decade or so later, he’s made it his own.

Chef German is clear on his point of view, and though his food does venture occasionally into the umami found in familiar Asian flavor profiles, it will be neither Asian nor Cajun. He will, instead, be bringing to Oakland his own unique version of seafood boils as well as other delicacies from the sea. After patiently refuting some early press that characterized his offerings as “Asian Cajun,” Chef German wants his diners to know that his food will be a breed of “boils” and other offerings he dubs “New American.”

Using traditional techniques, German plans to use his skills to transform the expected into dishes that speak with his own particular culinary vocabulary. His process for creating a dish is to draw on the foods he has personally enjoyed in the course of his life and travels, which results in a cuisine that is primarily inspired by the flavors of the Mediterranean and Latin cuisines.

Chef German is fascinated by the history of American food and the evolution of a cuisine that may have begun as homogenous, but now consists of dishes as complicated in their origins as are Americans themselves. Over our history, we have embraced many immigrant peoples, and each has made defining contributions to the collective national table.

Oysters with Cucumber Salsa

Oysters with Cucumber Salsa

His intention is to reinvent the dishes of his past into something his guests will find original yet familiar. Like Miles Davis covering an American standard, Chef German will ground his food in history, but the dishes will be altogether his. Expect to see the occasional flourish of classic French food preparation melding with the humble, fresh ingredients that inspire him. There will be dishes other than seafood on his menu, including the one that lit the passion for cooking in a young man’s imagination: his mother’s braised oxtail.

He is a man who takes his inspiration from the creativity of others, using his imagination to push himself to do bigger and better things, because he’s seen them done well and he loves doing it.

When asked what five ingredients he can’t live without in the kitchen, his response was telling: “Salt & Pepper, garlic, fresh oregano, my Japanese knife and, of course, a lot of zen.” Patient and calm, his kitchen demeanor is that of a steady leader, rather than a loud or arrogant tyrant. In this age of food as art, German strives for the dream of every artist: to be the master of his destiny while pursuing that which fulfills his spirit. For him, it’s serving up a mean platter of crawfish.

alaMar Ribbon-Cutting with Mayor Quan (r) and Chef Nelson Gerrman (c)

alaMar Ribbon-Cutting with (L-R) Architect Carrie Shores, Essex Property Mgr. Nan Trang, May German, City Council President Pro Tem Rebecca  Kaplan, Chef Nelson German, Lynette Gibson McElheny, Mayor Jean Quan and Contractor Duane Heil

While attending the soft-open and ribbon-cutting on Tuesday Night, we were given a preview of the newly renovated alaMar space. Architect Carrie Shores has created an open, almost nautical interior, which is the perfect backdrop for Chef German’s cuisine. The walls are done in hues of cloudy blue-gray and adorned with seasonal chalk murals. There are rope embellishments to add a “seafaring” vibe, and oversized light bulb fixtures hang from the extended ceilings. The large “Thank You Wall” above the hostess stand is a lovely shout-out to the folks who gave him a hand in this journey, and the crowning glory — an eight-foot copper sink where diners can rinse off their hands between heaping platters of crawfish — is an impressive piece of creative functionality.

At the soft-open, guests were treated to samples of a few of the dishes on Chef German’s premier menu. The first dish I tried was a Coconut Shrimp Lollipop, which presented itself as a whimsical pillow of shrimp meat on a stick. These succulent treats were chock full of moist shrimp meat, cooked to perfection in a champagne gastrique, with a tender little dribble of Thai basil cocktail sauce that added a hint of acid to the dish.

Another offering that made the rounds was a lovely little Crostini of Crawfish and Corn that tasted like summer had arrived, conjuring up hot, languid July days with a subtle blend of perfectly-seasoned shredded crawfish meat and corn, set off with a nice hint of citrus provided by a Meyer lemon drizzle.

My personal favorite was the Oysters with Cucumber. Served chilled, the fresh oyster was bathed in a lemon sambal mignonette, with ginger cilantro “caviar” and topped off with diced cucumber salsa. Light and flavorful, they were blissfully refreshing, just the ticket for cooling off on a hot spring night in Oakland.

The restaurant is the realization of a decade-long journey towards self expression through the production of great food. Nelson German is a talented chef whose unique perspective in the kitchen will be a marvelous addition to the Oakland dining repertoire. We are a lucky city to draw such talented culinary artists to our streets. They are aching to tell us their story through flavor; we need only be receptive.

As always, I encourage you to check it out. Take some time, break some bread, and make a lasting memory of your own.

alaMar
100 Grand Avenue
(between Valdez & Webster)
Oakland, CA 94612
(510) 907-7555
www.alamaroakland.com

About The Author

Angela F. Lazear is an Oakland native and the author of EAST BAY FOOD SCENE: Essays on the Ritual of Dining (www.eastbayfoodscene.com). Launched in 2007, East Bay Food Scene was established to pay homage to Oakland’s fascinating history, while chronicling the city’s rebirth through a vibrant, ever-changing landscape of food offerings. Many of Angela’s fondest childhood memories involve accompanying her grandparents to Oakland’s finest restaurants and sitting with them at the “grownup” table. Twice a month her grandparents would take her out for shrimp cocktail and filet of sole, at what was then The Sea Wolf, on Jack London Square. It was on these occasions that Angela discovered that collective dining brought with it the opportunity to make lasting memories. To this day, a perfect “old school” shrimp cocktail will bring to mind one of her grandfather’s fascinating and colorful stories of Prohibition, bootleggers, and run-ins with “wise-guys” seeking to get alcohol to the masses. These colorful stories were a kind of live theater. When Oakland began its dining renaissance, Angela saw an opportunity to honor both her family’s legacy and the city of her birth. Contrasting Oakland’s past to its present, her essays focus on how sharing great food experiences with loved ones can enrich one’s life immeasurably. Food is more than sustenance, it serves as a landmark for recalled experiences with loved ones and family. It is this connection between food and family that drives Angela to experience and chronicle the current generation of chefs and restaurateurs, as they re-invent cuisine and elevate it to an art form. Her mission is to share with her readers the stories of an Oakland that was, and to connect them to the Oakland that is becoming, that its inhabitants might remain in touch with the City’s past, as they inevitably meet with its promising future. The ritual of dining is an experience so entrenched in our collective personal history that we run the risk of missing the point if we fail to savor the experience as much as we do the myriad of flavors. Each morsel has the ability, at a later date, to recall moments from our past as vividly to the senses as if actually captured on film. A self-titled “Philosophoodie,” she would encourage her readers to savor every bite as it comes, take the time to engage with one another over every meal, and “make a lasting memory of your own.” Twitter: @foodaprecianado; Instagram: Foodapprecianado Facebook: EastBayFoodScene

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