The State Dinner honoring Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Tuesday night will commence with a sake welcome and include an American version of Japanese Wagyu beef, prized for its rich flavor. Helping execute the menu will be Japanese native Masaharu Morimoto of “Iron Chef” fame, whose dining outpost in Waikiki President Obama has frequented during several vacations to his native Hawaii.
Too much East and not enough West? Contemporary state dinners, after all, should celebrate “American food, American style and American entertainment,” says Ann Stock. The former White House social secretary knows whereof she speaks. Her former boss, First Lady Hillary Clinton, famously hired an American chef, Walter Scheib, to replace a French one who reportedly resisted Clinton’s request to serve lighter, more modern fare.
State dinner menus can be read as diplomatic overtures, marketing tools and administration advertising as its most subtle. Months in advance of such meals, advance teams share with hosts the preferences (and dislikes) of those being feted at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The main course of roasted beef tenderloin takes into consider Abe’s fondness for meat, according to someone with knowledge of the prime minister’s tastes. Framing the centerpiece will be young carrots, cauliflower and wild ramps from the farmers’ market, a nod to first lady Michelle Obama’s interest in mindful eating and possibly even her Let’s Move! campaign. (Because chewing counts as exercise, right?)
The eighth State Dinner hosted by the Obamas lets guest chef Morimoto strut his stuff with a version of a signature from his Morimoto restaurant in New York, toro tartare, to be served with Caesar sashimi salad. Wrapped in clear acetate and tied with a Mizuhiki cord made with rice paper, the salad is meant to look like a gift, according to a press release provided by the White House. Vegetables are first promoted in a second course consommé, which “pays tribute” to Michelle Obama’s kitchen garden by incorporating bok choy (one of the five vegetables she and schoolchildren planted there April 15), plus hearts of palm and bamboo shoots from Hawaii. A garnish of pineapple tempura with a sliver of cured Virginia ham completes the broth. “American with a nod to Japan,” Stock said in saluting the dish.
Dessert will be a riff on cheesecake. Lightened with soy milk and silken tofu, the fourth course comes with a Florida berry salad and a “petit pillow” sweetened with honey from the South Grounds. “A Sip of Tea” — petit fours based on Japanese teas — will follow, featuring a teapot made from blown sugar.
(The White House has a history of making lasting impressions with the final course for its Japanese friends. Stock recalls that for the Clinton administration’s first state dinner for Emperor Akihito of Japan and his wife, Empress Michiko, then-pastry chef Roland Mesnier so dazzled the empress with his spun sugar baskets filled with marzipan “sushi,” she asked, “Who created this?” – a rare question from the head guest.)
Orchestrated by longtime White House chef Cris Comerford and new pastry chef Susan Morrison, the state dinner will be held in the East Room. Like Obama, Abe is no stranger to guest-chef Morimoto’s cooking. Before he became prime minister, the Japanese leader had dined at Wasabi by Morimoto in India, according to the chef’s assistant.