IN 2006, Seattle hosted an international conference for culinary professionals. I spent three days meeting with editors, publicists, publishers, and cookbook authors, showing off dining spots like Palace Kitchen, where I was joined by two top New York cookbook editors. The meal started off well enough. But when I ordered a predinner Lillet Blanc, the French aperitif made from white wine that’s been fortified with aromatic orange liqueur, the women reacted as if I had asked for a Shirley Temple in a sippy cup and made cracks about my masculinity all through the appetizer course. That would be my last Lillet for nearly a year.
If only Patric Gabre-Kidan, chef Ethan Stowell’s partner at Tavolàta, How to Cook a Wolf, and—set to open in January—Capitol Hill’s Anchovies and Olives, had been there. Often found working the front of the house at Tavolàta, Gabre-Kidan is an island of Zen cool in the sea of bustling Belltowners. One evening, the woman next to me at the bar instructed Gabre-Kidan to “surprise her” with a cocktail of his choice. He reached into the cooler and brought out a bottle of Lillet. I’m sure it was the twilight playing tricks on my eyes, but it seemed like the bottle was glowing like the mysterious contents of Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase in Pulp Fiction. Each movement Gabre-Kidan made seemed drawn out: swirling the ice to chill the glass, peeling the orange twist. After her first sip, the woman’s wide smile said it all. I recounted my unmanning experience with Lillet to Gabre-Kidan, who shook his head in disappointment. “Man,” he said, his eyes meeting mine. “You’ve got to own your drink.”
Lillet took me back that night, no questions asked, and I found that in my time away it had only become more popular as an ingredient on specialty cocktail menus across the city. At another Ethan Stowell eatery, Union, I discovered the Yeh Yeh Yeh, a cocktail named not for the band but for Union regular Rocky Yeh, who helped then-bartender Jerry Tide come up with it. Tide and fellow barman Keith Waldbauer perfected it, settling on Woodford Reserve bourbon and Lillet Blanc over ice, stirred until chilled, and strained into a martini glass, plus a quarter ounce of Lillet Rouge (Blanc’s red-wine-based counterpart)—slowly added until it sinks to the bottom of the glass—and an orange twist. Strong and bracing, it’s the perfect vehicle to take Lillet into the winter months.
Don’t make the same mistake I did. When you’re out on this year’s holiday-party circuit, bring your host a bottle of Lillet instead of wine. And if you see a guy at Union ordering the “Me Me Me,” say hello to Rocky.