Political, economic and aesthetic questions notwithstanding, the recurrent question at the Japanese embassy's dinner tables is whether the chateaubriand is from Kobe beef.
Dinners at the embassy are cooked by the Japanese staff, but the menu is usually French. From my sample of one, I would guess that these French dinners are executed by magical elves; who else could so precisely carve potatoes into tiny balls and so decorate lobster halves with mosaics of egg as to draw the same intake of breath one hears at a performance of the Nutcracker Suite?
The stardust at a Japanese embassy dinner is, on closer observation, reflections of polished silver bouncing from ashtrays to dessertspoons, the glimmer of chandeliers made of countless crystal shards in strict geometry.
At each place is small crystal bowl set in ice and filled with jellied consomme supporting a half-inch drift of whipped cream and three snippets of chive. (Did each person have three? Such was the precision that one would guess so.)
Waiters - silent and smooth as the limousines parked outside - make rounds of the tables, bearing silver trays of cold lobster halves, their bodies filled with salade russe and stripped with minced egg white, parsley and egg yolk, their tails coated with mayonnaise. No drizzling down the sides of the shells. Precise. Exact. The lobster cooked not an instant too long. With all this, champagne, Piper-Heidsieck, refilled mysteriously after each sip.
So far, though, it is a French dinner of scientific accuracy, but totally French. Then the rare sliced filet of beef slips into a Japanese accent. With the brown mushroom sauce - unmistakably Gallic - and tiny rounds of sauteed potatoes - typically French - are plump, fleshy, inky Oriental mushrooms. Why hadn't the French thought of that?
Once the floodgate is opened, the dinner becomes more frankly Japanese. A bibb lettuce salad, accompanied by brie and crackers, is studded with silvers of fresh ginger. The French have missed a clever trick, but probably not for long.
With dessert the dinner timidly returns to the French fold. Pistachio ice cream bombe with ladyfingers and chocolate mints. A little Japanese carved fruits, perhaps the beautifully scalloped citrus fruits that had decorated the serving trays for the previous courses, would have retained the subtly increasing Japanese momentum. Cast my vote for an Oriental finale.
Yes, the menu was French. And the waiters hired to augment the embassy staff were speaking Spanish among themselves. The daisies and mums on the tables were pure American. But the delicacy, the subtlety, the precision, were as Japanese as the ginger on the lettuce salad.