When executive chef Nelson German moved across the country to the Bay Area five years ago, he took a piece of home with him. The chef turned restaurateur opened AlaMar Kitchen & Bar on Grand Avenue in Downtown Oakland after stints at the Supperclub SF and the now closed Marbella, both in San Francisco. Recommended for a Michelin Star only one year after opening, alaMar is a tribute to German’s Dominican heritage and the roots he left behind in New York.
“We all grew up knowing everybody in the neighborhood. Everybody knew each other by blocks. We all shared food, we all shared stories. Everybody was playing dominoes outside,” says German who grew up in The Big Apple’s Washington Heights area which is known for its large population of Dominicans.
Having come from the Dominican Republic, his parents brought along with them the food culture that inspires the way that German cooks food today. “My mom used to cook different things every day. So it wasn’t the same dishes every time. Everything had distinct flavor, a distinct sauce and home was like being in a restaurant.”
German secretly began cooking at the age of 12 for his friends. Their response encouraged him to keep playing around but it would never be thought of as a career option because, as German shares, men cooking in the kitchen was actually not seen as a manly thing to do in the Dominican culture; at least that was how the old school used to think. So instead, he had dreams of being a movie producer.
However, as fate would have it, he would eventually partner with friends on the idea of a nightclub restaurant. He would oversee the restaurant and they managed the rest of the operation. But when things didn’t work out, he still moved forward in the culinary industry perfecting his skills and working in high-end establishments throughout New York.
His wife’s desire to be with family back in Oakland transplanted him in the Bay Area. Not home to very many Dominicans but German is finding his niche and everyone couldn’t be happier. He opened alaMar in May of 2014 and by the name alone, you wouldn’t sense the Dominican influence. But because it is the only restaurant with this type of cuisine in the Bay Area (that we know of), everyone’s curiosity level is extremely high.
Seating under 100, alaMar offers the taste of the Dominican Republic mixed with ingredients and flavors German has created over the course of his culinary career and while traveling the world. “The menu tells my story as a chef. So there are a lot dishes there that I grew up with like oxtail. My mom used to make that all the time. Tostones and all the plaintain dishes and then there are dishes that I havedone in the past and created myself but they have evolved,” says German who uses the word “Neo-American” or a blending of cultures to describe his cuisine.
Menu items may change without notice as German likes to keep ingredients and dishes seasonal. If you don’t know what to expect, one glance at the menu and your taste buds will immediately get excited. “That is actually the fun part about it. People who don’t know what the cuisine is are always asking. It actually makes me smile. In this business you have to be different than everyone else in order to survive. The minute you become different, people notice.” Different in the best way is why foodies keep coming back for menu favorites that include the Dominican bowls of braised chicken, oxtail, tilapia, shrimp or stewed vegetables; a tribute to German’s childhood. His oysters are said to convert anyone on the fence about the slippery delicacy that he prepares by adding a little more texture with diced cucumber, a ginger-cilantro essence and hickory-smoked Tabasco on top of the lemon juice.
Other favorites include the tostones y salchichon or crunchy plaintains with beef salami and the coconut shrimp lollipops. If you are really adventurous, go for the roasted bone marrow with lemon garlic butter.
Open Monday – Saturday, German recently launched a Sunday Brunch which he feels will be a welcomed addition to the area and restaurant which has a full bar and outside patio.
The smaller operation of alaMar comes with all of the joys and challenges of being an entrepreneur but one thing German is truly enjoying is slowing down from the typical work week of 90 hours. A year of lessons has also taught him to take a step back to re-evaluate and make the necessary changes that will continue to grow the business while satisfying customers at the same time. “I was trying to do too much. I was trying to go a little bit too high-end ordering things that I shouldn’t be ordering. So I had to take myself back to realize that people are happy with what you are doing. They can taste the flavors, they can taste the love. You don’t have to go too overboard.”
alaMar Kitchen & Bar is located at 100 Grand Avenue in Oakland and is open for lunch and dinner. They offer catering as well as local delivery through the service Caviar. For reservations, call 510-907-7555 and you can also follow German and the restaurant on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Photo credit: V. Sheree Publishing