Combining Food and Wine at Gilligan's
Gilligan's407 Colorado, 474-7474
Mon-Fri, 11am-2pm; Mon-Thu, 5-10pm; Fri-Sat, 5-11pm; Sun, 5-9:30pm
Gilligan's has been a crowd-pleaser for years. The combination of well-prepared, Carribean-style food and an ace warehouse district location have kept the crowds coming back since it opened in 1991. Many folks don't realize that owner Stan Adams (who also owns Sienna and most of the Brick Ovens) is a wine fanatic. He constantly travels to California and Italy sampling wines for his restaurants. Gilligan's wine list reflects that fascination. The list carries more than 200 wines, a remarkable investment. Stan has given the wine list responsibility to manager Rina de Guzman, who has her own opinions of what a wine list should look like. Her notions are peppered with words like "hip," "groovy," "fun" and "rocking." She looks for "hot wines that are allocated, decently priced, and are ABC" (translation: popular, hard to come by, and anything-but-Chardonnay). She tastes about 30 bottles per week searching out wines that meet her criteria. Enough new wines enter the market that she changes the list every six weeks or so.
Chef Fred Geesin recognizes that the Gilligan's clientele have come to expect certain foods and flavors. They want extremely fresh seafood prepared in sauces that are boldly flavored concoctions with an emphasis on sweetness and fire. For the past four years, the menu has reflected his creative take on those parameters. Without messing with the formula too much, he has managed to put his stamp on the restaurant. Fred has a discerning palate that is well-attuned to subtle differences.
The price of Gilligan's popularity and reputation seems steep: Customers expect a certain, very distinctive style (which can be tough to match successfully with wine). A good example is the wild boar pot stickers ($9), which come with a sweet ginger-tamarind sauce, wasabi (Japanese horseradish, guaranteed to clear your sinuses), and red chile paste. While this dish is delicious by itself, finding a wine to match with the richness of the fried dough, the sweetness of the sauce, and the heat of the pepper and horseradish is tough. Rina recommends Caymus Conundrum ($12 per glass, $48 per bottle), a unique wine made from an oaky combination of Chardonnay, Sémillon, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscat. The wasabi and chile open your taste buds, but the Caymus, a very bold-flavored wine, still gets lost in the sweet sauce. If I were forced to come up with a wine recommendation for this food, I would probably go with the Schramsberg "Mirabelle" Brut Rosé ($34). The bubbles cut the sweetness and tickle the tongue even more effectively after the wasabi and hot pepper. Diners opting for another delicious dish, the honey-soy baby back ribs ($8) encounter a similar dilemma. Pairing the ribs with the Ravenswood Zinfandel "Vintner's Blend" ($7.50 per glass, $30 per bottle) diminishes both the wine and the food. The fruity Zinfandel just can't keep up with the sweetness of the ribs. Both the food and the wine are excellent, but this dish would probably be happier with beer.
Fortunately, a number of the dishes are perfectly made for wines. The mixed shellfish farfale ($22) has grilled shrimp, scallops, and lobster over a bed of pasta with a sauce of peppers and cream. Here, the peppers are flavorful but not too picante. A good wine for this dish is the Tiefenbrunner Pinot Grigio ($6.75 per glass, $33 per bottle), a beautifully dry and acidic Italian wine that mates perfectly with the food, encouraging the shellfish flavors while taming the cream sauce. Stuffed rainbow trout ($18) comes filled with crab, sun-dried tomatoes, and goat cheese on a bed of couscous and yummy red Swiss chard. Rina recommends the Cuvaison Chardonnay ($10 per glass, $40 per bottle) as a match. It's a beautiful wine, but it has a little too much finesse for the food. The buttery chard and shellfish cry out for a bright and minerally wine like the Iron Horse Fumé Blanc ($7.75 per glass, $37 per bottle) or Chateau Beauregard Ducasse Graves ($28). My favorite dish, the chile-spiced Pecan Crusted Redfish ($18), benefits from the same couscous and Swiss chard underpinnings. But this time they make the sauce from sun-dried cherries. Two great wine matches would be the Leon Beyer Gewürztraminer ($38) or the Dr. Joh. Jos. Prum Riesling Kabinett ($36). Both are perfumed, fruity, and acidic wines that would benefit from the chile's sensitizing effect on the palette. At the same time, the acid in the wines would merge beautifully with the pecans and redfish.
Gilligan's is and has been very successful. Both the food and the wine list are exceptional. How could they improve? There are two subtle points, though. Number one: You can go to Gilligan's and have great food. You can also have great wine. What you may or may not have is a good recommendation for pairing the two. Currently, Fred creates the food, Rina conceives the wine list, and the waitstaff has the responsibility of recommending ways to pair the food and wine. To assure the waitstaff's ability to carry this out, they schedule regular wine tastings and tastings from the menu. The wine list is so large and encompassing that it can adapt to almost any food the chef creates. But waitstaffs change regularly in this town. I don't know how you can always feel confident that the person serving you has a working knowledge of over 200 wines. Because they make the waitstaff responsible for advising the customer on wine/food pairings, Gilligan's is more vulnerable to the consequences than some other restaurants. While I can't evaluate the ability of the entire waitstaff, I can recommend Bryan Puckett. Every time I ask his opinion on a wine to match the food, his recommendations are skillful and imaginative.
Point two: The wine list is exceptional, but focused on wines that are "hot" as opposed to what is best for the food. What you may miss is the little epiphany that can come when the kitchen and the wine list are singing in sync, playing off each other's strengths and idiosyncrasies. Purveyors are always approaching chefs with new, fresh, and exciting foods. That is one of the reasons restaurants have specials. And wine distributors are always approaching with new wines and new vintages. That's why wine lists change so frequently. Both chef and wine buyer usually enjoy these changes because they keep the creative juices flowing. But when the criteria for choosing the wine goes from what best fits the food to what is hip and groovy, all lose.
The best restaurants find a way to juxtapose the creative excitement of the chef and wine buyer so that the customer gets a great combination. In this case, though we have two very good players, they are not always in harmony.