Huntington Village welcomes a fun new bistro, which features some fabulous Cuban food with a Mediterranean flair, to its restaurant scene. Babalu, owned by 27-year-old, retired professional boxer Alan Gotay, officially opened on April 22 in the space previously housed by Sip Tea Lounge on New York Avenue, north of Main Street.
Gotay’s story from professional boxer to professional chef, is as interesting as the food he creates. Both his father and grandfather were professional boxers in Puerto Rico. Gotay followed in their footsteps and started boxing at age sixteen. By the time he was twenty-two, he turned professional, having fought eleven pro fights, ten of them at the Paramount in Huntington. His record includes eight wins, three losses and four knockouts. After sustaining some neck and spinal injuries, however, Gotay knew the time was right to change careers, so he turned to his other love—cooking.
Babalu, then, signals a return to Gotay’s roots. There, he has taken traditional Cuban dishes and put his own twist on them by adding interesting spices and ingredients from the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Gotay was very much into nutrition and fitness while he was training as a boxer, and he believes this gave him the knowledge to learn about foods, spices and herbs, and the health benefits they provide. Wanting to learn how to apply this knowledge and hone in on his cooking skills, however, he attended Star Career Academy in Syosset (now closed) where he graduated as valedictorian of their culinary arts program in 2014.
“I’ve been in the restaurant business since I’m 14-years-old,” says Gotay. “I worked the front of the house, and ended up in the back. I fell in love with it. After culinary school I worked as a chef in many restaurants. I know the demands. There are long hours, late nights and early mornings. I always knew I wanted to do that—to cook for other people. I had the opportunity to bring it to Huntington where I live. I couldn’t pass on that.”
Gotay has been a resident of Huntington for the past eight years. His first job out of culinary school was for Lola Restaurant in Great Neck, a French-inspired Mediterranean restaurant owned by Chef Michael Ginor. Gotay worked as a sous chef there while he continued his boxing career. After he finished his last pro fight, he decided to go into cooking full-time, where he worked in both New York City and on Long Island. Gotay has worked with Michelin Star chef Michael Psilakis, celebrity chef Bobby Flay, and well-known Italian-born chef Michele Brigioni at Armani Ristorante in New York City.
After gaining experience and knowledge, Gotay set out to make his dream of owning his own restaurant a reality. Even at his young age, Gotay can handle the pressures of the business. In fact, he craves it.
“When I started cooking, I knew this was what I was supposed to do. I love everything about it,” Gotay says. “I even love the pressure in the kitchen. It makes me feel like I’m an athlete again. When you’re an athlete, you’re under pressure, you’re under scrutiny, you’re in the spotlight, and that’s what I get in the kitchen. There are endless possibilities.”
Gotay has the love and support of his family who have encouraged him to follow his dreams. In just a short time, Babalu has acquired a following with many repeat customers. Gotay believes Babalu is thriving because his food speaks for itself.
Babalu, which is the name of a popular Desi Arnaz song, is also the nickname for St. Lazarus, the patron saint of Cuba. The bistro seats twenty-three people, and during good weather tables are also set up outside. The interior is bright, cheery and modern, and includes a large custom-made wallpaper featuring Cuban scenes. The table tops are custom made, and the small kitchen has an interior window where patrons can watch Gotay cook, and where Gotay can watch his customers enjoy his food. It is very important to him to please and wow his guests, and he will often come out from behind the kitchen to greet them and to ask them what they think of the food.
Gotay uses only the freshest ingredients, and uses as many local products as possible. Every morning he makes two stops, one to the market to get fresh produce, and the other to Emilia’s Bakehouse Café in Melville where he picks up bread which he uses for his Cuban sandwiches. Olive oils and vinegars come from The Olive Tree on Main Street in Huntington, and fish comes from Marty’s Gourmet Seafood just down the street. All meats are hormone free. Everything is fresh and most items are made the day it is served. Gotay prides himself on the fact that he does not have a microwave in his kitchen.
“I set a bar when I opened this place,” says Gotay. “I hold myself by high standards. I make everything in-house—from the ice cream to the pasta. All the desserts are homemade. All the recipes are my own. I wanted to set a certain standard. I hope to inspire my own cooks that work here, and hopefully other chefs in town as well. It’s better if you don’t take shortcuts. Just because we are a little place doesn’t mean we can’t put out the best food in Huntington.”
On the day I arrived at Babalu there was heavy rain and flooding, yet there was a constant flow of people coming in to dine. Gotay was right: His food does speak for itself. His homemade red beet linguini with sautéed mushrooms, golden raisins, olives and garlic in a light olive oil, white wine lemon sauce was exquisite in both looks and taste. Finished with fresh dill, this dish was truly outstanding. The way the flavors melded together was perfect, and it was unlike anything I have eaten before. It was served as a special and was not on the menu. I am hoping Gotay will make this a standard dish because it was that good.
I tried the Cubano sandwich next, which was also excellent, and happens to be one of their best-selling menu items. Serrano ham, pernil (slow roasted pork shoulder), Swiss cheese and homemade pickles are pressed into wonderful ciabatta bread and is served with light, and perfectly seasoned, tostones (plantains). The sandwich was crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, and had wonderful Cuban flavors. The empanadas, another popular dish, were traditional and were stuffed with Spanish seasoned ground beef, peas, shallots, garlic and red and yellow peppers. I loved the black bean soup which was packed with flavor. It was very aromatic and the spices and seasonings added a wonderful kick to what so often is a bland soup. It was finished with goat cheese, homemade parsley oil and fresh herbs which added a wonderful freshness.
The other thing that makes Babalu so great are its prices—which range on average from $8.00 to $15.00. Main course dinner entrees range from $17.00 to $23.00.
“Some people have never been fortunate enough to find their love,” says Gotay. “I have been fortunate enough to find it not only once, but twice. My two passions as an adult have been boxing and cooking – and one has led me to the other.”
Babalu is open Tuesday – Thursday from 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., and Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays brunch is also served until 3:00 p.m.