Local Top Chef puts it all on the table

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Chef Nelson German of Sobre Mesa.

by Robbie Jackson

Sobre la mesa when translated to English means “over the table.” Sobre Mesa, the restaurant, embodies their name as they focus on “the moment when hunger passes and conversation begins.” The downtown Oakland restaurant is the perfect after-work spot to kick back and enjoy a happy hour that includes hand crafted cocktails and unique thoughtful cuisine – with options for those who seek adventure and foods that would satisfy even the pickiest of eaters. The owner, Chef Nelson German, was born and raised in Washington Heights, New York, but love has anchored him in the Bay and inspired him to open not one but two thriving restaurants in the Bay Area.

“I came in 2010 due to my beautiful wife. We met in New York. She was living there a little bit, born and raised out here (in Oakland). Once we got engaged five years into our relationship, she was like, “You’re coming out West.” At that point she had gotten me into travel and seeing new things. 

You know, as New Yorkers, if we don’t travel, we are stuck in our ways, and very prideful about our city. We don’t want to leave. I knew it was time to see something new. For me the Bay was always a hotspot for food. So I saw it as an opportunity for my career as a chef to come experience something new, learn about California cuisine and the Mecca of Food compared to New York,” German added as we chatted about his journey.

It’s safe to say he did just that! In 2014 he opened up the now Michelin recommended restaurant Alamar. Later he would make his television debut on the nationally televised 18th season of the show Top Chef. Now he looks to further his career and connection with the Bay as he establishes Sobre Mesa. 

“You have two very different spots. Both full of soul. Full of heart. Alamar was the first place that was a passion project. It really showcases my journey as a chef. When I first opened it, we were showcasing things on the menu that were childhood dishes,” says German. 

He continues to rave about his Bay Area regulars saying: “Alamar is really that neighborhood family friendly restaurant that’s kinda like Cheers for a lot of people. They come in all the time. They meet new people.They are kinda our marketers and cheerleaders. It’s a place that is really diverse – small livelihood representing the town to the fullest with a little New York vibe. 

Sobre is still the same story showcasing heritage and community but it’s more of a destination. When you are there, you are not in Oakland anymore. You could be in West Africa, or the Caribbean Islands, or could be in South America. It’s super lush and super sexy. It has dim lighting. colorful art. It’s super special. You go to Alamar when you in the Town (Oakland) representing, we are here in the Bay.” 

However, love and food aren’t the only things that keep him coming back to the Bay. Art plays a part as well. The walls are drenched with artwork by local Afro Latino artists and you are encouraged to support them by purchasing any of the pieces on display.  There is a massive lush mural featured in the space that was created by Local Edition Creative Artist David Cho. The beautiful tables and the Bottle Service Experience are crafted by local Latino craftsmen right here in the Bay Area. Even all the plants and greenery were thoughtfully handpicked by Cassandra McCall of Gold and Rust Finds in Piedmont, Oakland, California. 

Beyond that he goes on to tell me: “Oakland has always been that city embraced by artists. Almost every art form in the world is represented in Oakland. So, you have to really embrace that and have a sense of that in your space. With all the art, all the things are curated and shown in the space. From every piece of glassware, to every plate, to every art piece.” 

Currently most of their artwork spaces are filled by Taylor Smalls. She is a Black local artist in Oakland who  has been named Oprah’s favorite artist. 

So, while the nation may know Chef German for his tv appearance on Top Chef, many locally know him as a supporter of the Bay Area and all its local goodness. He and I agreed Oakland embraces him and his talent for food expression. 

“You know I have always had good opportunities since opening Alamar, which is our first restaurant. We’ve been open since 2014. You know we are a staple of the community. We’re always about community and giving back. So, a lot of things done in the Bay have gained me good opportunities, and Top Chef brought it to another level. I think the national exposure really helped cement my career and who I am as a chef. I think that show really opened my eyes as a chef letting me know what kind of food I should be doing. For me, know it’s really about focusing on my roots and getting back to where I come from.”  

Selfishly I asked the chef for a drink and food recommendation so when I visited the spot I could experience it like a pro. “Definitely our empanadas are the most popular item. We’ve sold so many of them overnight. That one is special because that’s something I grew up with. It’s a hand pie basically. It represents different parts of our culture. 

From African hand pies to empanadas from my Dominican lineage, in my family when you come into our house the first thing someone will bring you is a plate of empanadas as a welcome to our home. It’s a dish that represents Welcome to Sobre Mesa. Welcome to our home. Feel at home, relax and have a good time,” said Chef German. 

And I felt just that! The food, space and music took me to another place. Since time travel isn’t a thing yet after work, this spot will have to do. Be sure to stop by on a Tuesday when it’s happy hour all day! Also be sure to check out Chef Nelson German’s pop ups! Recently he collaborated with Chef Mary Lou Davis, circa 2019 runner up for Hell’s Kitchen, and Ghanaian Chef Selassie Atadika. He also has a Whiskey Blend coming soon with tastemakers!

While we wait for that tasty treat, let’s enjoy Sobre Mesa. Tell him that Robbie sent you! See you there! 

Robbie Jackson  is a student of the San Francisco Bay View’s Community Journalism Class, which is funded by the California State Library.