By Jano Tantongco
Known as the “boxing chef” to some, Alan Gotay put his boxing gloves aside to step into the kitchen to combine the flavors of the island nation of Cuba and the oceanic foundation of cuisine from the Mediterranean to produce truly knock-out dishes.
Gotay, a 26-year-old from Huntington with a Puerto Rican and Cuban background, is not only a professional boxer — with 10 fights at The Paramount under his belt — but also a budding master chef.
He’s been in the restaurant business in some form since he was 14, eventually working for culinary greats including Bobby Flay, Michael Psilakis and Michael Ginor.
He’s since moved his passion for cooking into the spotlight, opening Babalu last week.
“If I’m going to be working long hours and late nights, I might as well cook something that speaks to me, that I love to make, and hopefully be able to deliver that on a plate,” Gotay said.
The menu features a myriad of Cuban tapas with a helping of Mediterranean staples that work together to form a delicious harmony of flavors from across the world.
The homemade baked Empanadas ($10) tasted as if they were straight from a family’s kitchen, with all the comforts of home embedded in each bite. The flakey crust was a pleasure to chew and was stuffed with picadillo, a hearty mixture of ground beef, peas and tomatoes.
The Guava Plate ($13) was truly an artisanal take on a cheese plate. A slightly nutty Manchego manchego is plated with cuts of Spanish guava that are packed with a tropical sweetness enhanced by a pleasing, grainy texture reminiscent of pears. It’s served with a warm and fluffy potato and onion tortilla omelet, topped with a bold blend of roasted peppers and olives, that is a wonderful base to mix and match the various delicacies in the spread. It’s also served with fig jam for a punch of fruity goodness, as well as a deliciously savory serrano ham.
The Mediterranean Red Snapper ($23) is a rich fillet of red snapper served with red beet beurre blanc sauce, topped with olives, golden raisins and mushrooms. The luscious cut of the fish is just barely firm and easily takes in the rich, almost mysterious, beurre blanc sauce, which seems mild at first, but grows in flavor with each bite. The olives and raisins add accents of boldness and sweetness that keep the dish varied with complexity.
Homemade linguine is the highlight of La Bamba ($23) which features fire-roasted red peppers, Kalamata olives, sardines and dried apricots, stepped in an olive oil and white wine sauce. Gotay, who takes pride in working and kneading the dough, creates an elegant, yet simple pasta dish that is profoundly tasty and pulls no punches when it comes to savory taste on multiple fronts.
To wrap up the meal, the simple desserts of the Cuban homeland will make any foodie yearn for days just outside the busy Havana streets, leaning back and taking in the sun.
The Cuban Flan ($7) is firmer than run-of-the-mill flan and is served with a side of butterscotch sauce, for a distinctive succulence not found in the traditional dish.
The Dulce De Leche Cheesecake ($7) is an excellent take on a classic, with a mild sweetness tempered by a pinch of salt that’s sure to please dessert lovers with a Nilla wafer crust.
The Homemade Malta Ice Cream ($4) is a gem, taking the wholesome flavor of malta, a malty drink enjoyed by millions of Latin Americans, and condensing it into a delicious ice cream topped with Nilla wafers.
While the name Babalu is known as Desi Arnaz’s song in “I Love Lucy,” it also pays homage to Babalú-Ayé, a deity in the Santeria religion whose known among Cubans for miracle cures, prosperity and health.
Gotay brims with vitality and aims to provide food that’s simple, yet “done right.”
“The Spanish culture, to me, it speaks family,” Gotay said. “For me, that’s the feeling I want to provide to people.”