Say "seafood boil" and most of us think of plastic bibs, greasy sauces and cheap crayfish -- all claw, little meat. At alaMar, the New American seafood restaurant in downtown Oakland, this great Cajun tradition is classed up with high quality, local ingredients and some unforgettable savory broths.
They have plastic bibs, but the roll of paper towels is optional.
What is especially unusual: New York native and chef owner Nelson German uses mostly Mediterranean spices -- think saffron and fresh herbs over Old Bay -- in his boils, in addition to the Asian-Cajun treatments one would expect so close to San Francisco's Vietnamese seafood dives. He even finds opportunities to showcase his Dominican heritage via plantain preparations that will knock your socks straight to the Bayou.
The nautical theme extends to the restaurant's decor, of course, but in subtle, urban ways: Thick ropes dangle from the ceiling, a teal wall brightens old-school Edison light bulbs and a stainless steel hand-washing station is planted in the middle of the dining room. Despite a full house eating mostly with their hands over paper-lined trays, I saw only one person get up for a rinse. Maybe, like me, they were too busy sopping up German's sauces with thick, crunchy slices of grilled sourdough (Oakland's Firebrand Artisanal Bread). The staff keeps the bread coming and removes pots before they pile up with shells.
All the seafood is sold by the pound and arrives in black cast-iron pots. Big, head-on peel 'n' eat white shrimp ($17) were heaped in a pool of rich, buttery stock with cayenne and lemongrass and beautiful, garlicky fingerling potato halves. Penn Cove mussels ($14) were far more juicy and complex than the common white wine and garlic preparation. German used Spanish saffron and orange bitters in his broth, combined with bacon lardon and Thai basil. It was so full of bright flavors and aromas, I wanted to drink it.
The only thing that impressed me more than the sauce was the fair price. In fact, the most expensive dish on the menu was a non-seafood entree, braised Black Angus oxtail ($19), cut crosswise on the bone in a tamari-laced stew bobbing with soft, cipollini onions and agave-sweetened turnips. The oxtail was tender, not overly fatty, and our gluten-free diner appreciated the use of tamari -- most of the menu is gluten-free, actually -- even if the broth was a bit salty.
You don't have to be gluten-free or vegetarian to fall in love with German's red quinoa-stuffed plantain ($15). This entree also came in a cast-iron pot, with Dominican braised pinto beans, spring garlic and a sprightly Meyer lemon pepper sauce, a sophisticated marriage of Latin textures and flavors.
I found chef German's appetizers and side dishes equally sophisticated -- and whimsical. Take the coconut shrimp lollipops ($8) bathed in a Champagne gastrique, or the petite chicken wing confit ($7) classed up with bacon-honey glaze, cumin salt and micro basil. As much as we tried, no one at our table could resist the Parmesan truffle tornado crisp ($5), a skewer of homemade, peppery Kennebec potato chips with a side of black pepper garlic aioli dipping sauce.
My only complaint: Dessert. We ordered TCHO dark chocolate fritters ($6) that were supposed to ooze sweet chocolaty goodness from their centers, but some of the fritters were missing the ooze, tasting like dryish muffins. But that will hardly keep me from going back to alaMar. Those lovingly prepared broths and free-flowing sourdough slices are practically calling to me now. Can I get two bibs next time?
WHERE: 100 Grand Ave., Suite 111, Oakland
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays and 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; until 11 p.m. Fridays; and 5 to 11 p.m. Saturdays
CUISINE: New American seafood
VEGETARIAN: Red quinoa-stuffed plantain. Ask for it by name.
BEVERAGES: Eight artisanal cocktails, a Fernet and ginger sno-cone (for real), house sodas, nine craft beers plus beer cocktails (Ancho Reyes + Tecate, anyone?) and a concise, seafood-loving wine program.
RESERVATIONS: For parties of six or more
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
PARKING: Street parking
KIDS: Kids will enjoy the Coconut Shrimp Lollipops.
PLUSES: Gussied-up seafood boils
MINUSES: Dessert can be hit or miss.
DATE OPENED: May
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