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Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly described the cuisine at chef Marcus Samuelsson's New York restaurant Aquavit as Swiss. It is Swedish.
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Marking first state dinner, Obama welcomes Indian prime minister

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At his administration's first state dinner, President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh toast each other, their families and countries.

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The toasts were gracious, of course, but also took note of history and the changing nature of an increasingly interconnected world.

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"To the future that beckons all of us. Let us answer its call. And let our two great nations realize all the triumphs and achievements that await us," Obama said.

And Singh reciprocated: "Mr. President, your journey to the White House has captured the imagination of millions and millions of people in India. You are an inspiration to all those who cherish the values of democracy, diversity and equal opportunity."

The menu was supervised by guest chef Marcus Samuelsson of New York's Aquavit, which specializes in Swiss cuisine, one of the few facts related to the evening that doesn't seem to symbolize anything. Samuelsson worked with the White House kitchen staff to create predominantly vegetarian dishes, out of respect for Singh, who does not eat meat. Foodies, start your engines! Guests began with potato and eggplant salad and White House arugula -- the bitter green favored by food snobs clearly no longer is deemed a political hot button -- with onion seed vinaigrette. That was followed by red lentil soup. There were two main courses: roasted potato dumplings with tomato chutney, along with chickpeas and okra, or green curry prawns with caramelized salsify, smoked collard greens and coconut aged basmati rice.

Washing it all down were American wines: a 2008 sauvignon blanc from Napa Valley (Modus Operandi), a 2006 riesling from the Willamette Valley (Brooks "Ara"), a 2007 granache from Santa Ynez (Beckmen Vineyards) and a sparkling chardonnay from Monticello, Va. (Thibaut-Janisson Brut).

Dessert included a pumpkin pie tart and a pear tatin and an extravaganza of brittle, petits fours and pralines.

The evening's entertainment began with a dramatic flourish as forest-green curtains on the tent's south wall pulled away to reveal the National Symphony Orchestra with Marvin Hamlisch conducting "Summon the Heroes." The Washington Monument, with its milky glow, was visible in the distance. Then came the Bay Area Empire Bhangra dancers performing their acrobatic moves in green and red costumes. Next up, A.R. Rahman's "Jai Ho!" He won an Academy Award for the song from "Slumdog Millionaire," a film that caused some consternation in India among those who thought it showed the country in a poor light. A remix of his infectious song was recorded with the Pussycat Dolls, but they apparently were not invited to the party.

Also on the bill, jazz vocalist and Chicagoan Kurt Elling and another Chicago native, Jennifer Hudson -- of "Dreamgirls," "American Idol" and the Democratic National Convention.

For such an elegant evening that seemed to go off without any visible hitches, the day had begun in a worrisome way. The weather had been so dismal that the arrival ceremony for the prime minister was moved indoors at the last minute. What was imagined to be a stately ceremony, for some 1,000 people, under crisp autumn skies turned into a fast welcome -- about 15 minutes total -- in an East Room crowded five deep with about 200 guests holding their cellphones aloft, hoping their cameras would capture what would they could not actually see.

Obama told the assembled crowd that he had chosen India for his first state dinner to reflect "the high esteem in which I and the American people hold your wise leadership. It reflects the abiding bonds of respect and friendship between our people, including our friends in the Indian American community who join us here today," the president said. "But above all, your visit, at this pivotal moment in history, speaks to the opportunity before us -- to build the relationship between our nations, born in the last century, into one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century."

Then Singh spoke briefly, noting that "India and America are separated by distance, but bound together by the values of democracy, pluralism, rule of law and respect for fundamental human freedoms. Over the years, we have built upon these values and created a partnership that is based upon both principle and pragmatism."

"I've come today to build upon these successes and to strengthen our multifaceted relationship," Singh said.

The two leaders spoke in front of a crowd of VIPs that included Kaur, dressed in a green traditional Indian sari and first lady Michelle Obama, wearing a pumpkin belted coat over a print dress by Isaac Mizrahi. Also standing by were Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who greeted a familiar face in the Indian delegation with her hands pressed together in a "namaste" gesture, and Vice President Biden and his wife, Jill.

Even in the smaller space, the ceremony bore some of the signature marks of the Obama administration, or more precisely, the first lady's office: local children. The first couple have been vocal about their intention to include both children and regular folks in White House events. It is the People's House, as they are so fond of saying. The emphasis on youth was underscored throughout the afternoon.

At the preview of the dinner's menu, place settings and floral arrangements, the usually staid House and Garden affair was transformed into a teachable moment for local young women who are participating in the White House's mentorship program. Eighteen mentees, some wearing Girl Scout sashes loaded with badges, listened as William Allman, curator of the White House, gave a history lesson on state dinners. (The first was in 1874 under President Ulysses Grant.) And Tanya Turner, a protocol officer from the Department of State, offered a tutorial on diplomatic visits. (The head of state always stands to the president's right, which is the place of honor.)

The first lady made a costume change from her morning attire. For talk of china and posies, she wore a twinkling J. Crew cardigan -- belted, as is her way -- and a taupe and beige skirt by Indian American designer Rachel Roy. In her remarks, she noted that this dinner for India was especially meaningful because it was a chance for her to reciprocate the hospitality that she has enjoyed in her travels this year. Call it dinner party payback on a grand scale. "Since becoming first lady, I've had the opportunity to visit eight countries with my husband, the president. And in each and every country, during each and every visit, I have been moved by the warmth and gracious hospitality that our hosts and the citizens of the countries that we visited have extended to the president and to me."

So this country's bigwigs and top honchos mingled with diplomats and visiting dignitaries. Despite the Obamas' pledge of a White House open to more than the triple-A-list, however, no one named Average Joe was on the official guest list.


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