Curry and glamour shared the menu at the first White House state dinner hosted by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.
The formal banquet honoring Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife, Gursharan Kaur, had been highly anticipated. More than 10 months into this administration, many among the city's social set had yearned for proof that the Obamas' urban, international style would measure up to the biggest social events of the glamorous Kennedy White House and spell an end to the era of the early-to-bed Bushes.
Tuesday evening's party followed a long day of pomp and ceremony. It began rather drearily when rain forced a morning welcome ceremony off the South Lawn and inside to the East Room of the White House. A planned gun salute was canceled.
But for 339 lucky guests who could see the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial through clear panels in the heated pavilion on the South Lawn, it was an affair to remember.
Obama toasted Singh by calling the relationship between the United States and India "a great and growing partnership."
The Indian leader praised the first African-American president as "an inspiration to all those who cherish the values of democracy, diversity and equal opportunity."
The toasts culminated months of planning that began in July after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hand-delivered an invitation to Singh during a visit to India. Tuesday's White House state dinner was the second for Singh, who was hosted by President George W. Bush in 2005. The event was the latest in a long line honoring Indian heads of state that stretches back 60 years to Harry Truman's small dinner for Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister. Despite Tuesday's spillover on the South Lawn, Bill Clinton's dinner in 2000 for Atal Bihari Vajpayee was twice as big, with nearly 700 guests packed into a tent.
The Obamas have entertained before. From a Super Bowl party for members of Congress to concerts to a black-tie dinner that ended with governors dancing in a conga line, the Obamas know how to throw a party. But a state dinner is something else.
"These state visits and dinners are a really important part of our nation's diplomacy," Michelle Obama said during a press preview earlier in the day, where she wore a skirt by Indian designer Rachel Roy. "Throughout history, they've given U.S. presidents -- and the American people -- the opportunity to make important milestones in foreign relations."
Also See: Full Guest List | The Menu
Obama and Singh signed eight memos on everything from counterterrorism to green technology and released a joint statement. But for most of the day the buzz was about couture on the red carpet at the black-tie gala.
The first lady wore a sparkling, sleeveless champagne-colored sheath dress with an overlay of silver and a matching shawl by Indian-American designer Naeem Khan. Her hair was swept back and she wore a stack of churis, traditional Indian bangle bracelets.
The reviews on the Web site Mrs. O didn't pull punches: "Stunning," "gorgeous" and "phenomenal" were the words used to describe the first lady's look.
Hal Rubenstein, fashion director of InStyle magazine, compared Michelle Obama's ensemble to a "Jackie Kennedy sort of appropriateness. Most people wouldn't know one way or another about Naeem's background, but if one sentence gets mentioned to the prime minister, then her subtleness would pay off."
He told The Associated Press that he was impressed that Mrs. Obama chose a sophisticated and regal style that paid homage to India without wearing a traditional sari-style dress, which could look like a costume next to India's first lady.
India's first couple went for a more subdued look. Kaur wore a black sari with red and gold trim. Singh wore a powder-blue turban and traditional black Nehru jacket to Obama's classic tuxedo.
Vice President Joe Biden's wife, Jill, wore a gown by Lebanese designer Reem Acra, while White House social secretary Desiree Rogers wore a pearl-studded dress by the Japanese label Comme des Garcons. The wife of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, wore black satin with a lace jacket. Asked who she was wearing, Jean Chu said, "Bloomingdales."
For days before the dinner, pundits played a guessing game about who would attend and what they would wear.
Robin Givhan, who as The Washington Post's fashion writer often critiques the sometimes peculiar fashion choices of capital celebrities, wrote that "a White House state dinner is an affair like no other because the sartorial demands are so precise, the politics both superficial and opaque and the entire display of pomp, circumstance and exclusivity precisely the kind of thing that goes against our national character. Of course, it is irresistible."
So are the bragging rights of the elite few who snagged a coveted cream-colored invitation engraved with the gold presidential seal.
Given the guest of honor, the list leaned heavily toward Indian-Americans.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was there, despite the Republican's past criticism of the president's fiscal and health care policies.
So was Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical correspondent and Obama's original choice for surgeon general. Author Deepak Chopra, Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen and lesbian activist Urvashi Vaid, along with her non-Indian partner, comedian Kate Clinton, attended.
Hollywood director M. Night Shyamalan was there. So was Kal Penn, who's taking a break from acting to work in the White House Office of Public Engagement. No word on whether he thought the dinner was a step up from his days playing a stoner hooked on White Castle hamburgers in the "Harold & Kumar" films.
There were plenty of non-Indian glitterati. DreamWorks partners David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who last year sealed a $1.2 billion deal for a new studio with Mumbai's Reliance ADA Group, were on hand. So was uber-agent Ari Emanuel, whose big brother Rahm is the uber-powerful White House chief of staff. Working media may have been shunted behind a rope line, but CBS anchor Katie Couric, NBC's Brian Williams and CNN's Fareed Zakaria got seats inside.
One name that was rumored to be on the guest list but wasn't: Oprah Winfrey, the media mogul who gave Obama a key campaign endorsement.
The dinner did include the usual assortment of Cabinet members and congressional leaders. Secretary of State Clinton -- but not her husband, the former president -- was there. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi brought her spouse, but Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry left Teresa Heinz Kerry home.
A few Washington bigwigs turned down the invitation. Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner went home to Ohio early for Thanksgiving. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decided to rest up back in Nevada before next week's daunting debate over health care reform begins.
The A-listers ate well. No hard feelings were meant for the White House kitchen staff, but Michelle Obama brought in outside help for her first state dinner.
Marcus Samuelsson, the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised celebrity chef of New York's Aquavit restaurant, oversaw the mostly vegetarian meal. The author of four cookbooks and winner of many culinary honors, including 2003 best chef in New York, the 39-year-old was handpicked for the prestigious assignment by Rogers, the White House social secretary.
The menu included herbs and arugula from the White House garden for dishes with an Indian flavor. Singh, like many Indians, doesn't eat meat so while carnivorous guests could choose a main dish of green curry prawns, the prime minister chowed down on roasted potato dumplings with tomato dumplings, chickpeas and okra. Dessert included pears poached in honey from the White House beehive.
Guests sat at tables of 10, each draped in apple-green linens with floral and candlestick centerpieces. The china was from George W. Bush's presidency, while the service plates dated to the days of Dwight Eisenhower, the first president to visit India after it attained independence from Britain in 1947. Purple goblets and matching flowers paid homage to India's state bird, the peacock. The symbolism even permeated the walls of the dining pavilion, which were decorated with magnolia branches native to both India and the United States.
Once the dishes were cleared, the guests settled down for an after-dinner bill that ranged from Hollywood to Bollywood to the Obamas' neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago.
Actress-singer Jennifer Hudson, the Chicago native who won an Oscar for "Dreamgirls," and Indian composer A.R. Rahman, who won two Academy Awards for the score of "Slumdog Millionaire," performed.
Chicago jazz vocalist Kurt Elling, who lives near the Obamas in Chicago's Hyde Park, was also in the lineup, and Marvin Hamlisch conducted the National Symphony Orchestra.