WASHINGTON – Famously early to bed, President Bush (search) decided to make an exception Monday night for what has been a rare event in his administration: a glitzy, Washington A-list dinner.
The menu's fragrant basmati rice and lotus blossoms, the saffron-colored, silk tablecloths and the trumpeting elephants fashioned from fresh mums and roses all pointed to India, for the guest of honor was Manmohan Singh (search), the visiting prime minister, and his wife, Gursharan Kaur.
The event was only the fifth grand dinner of Bush's presidency, and the first of his second term. It was much anticipated, given that it's been nearly two years since the last such dinner by Bush.
Previous dinners were held for the presidents of Mexico, just days before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 (search); Poland, in July 2002, and the Philippines and Kenya, in May and October of 2003.
Monday's soiree was an "official" dinner, not a "state dinner" like the previous four events, because Singh is a head of government and not a head of state.
But differences between the two are minor.
"For the most part, it has many of the same elements of a state dinner," said Susan Whitson, spokeswoman for first lady Laura Bush.
The event was black-tie, which meant tuxedos for the men and fancy cocktail or floor-length dresses for their female companions. Mrs. Bush was sliding into a Bill Blass creation — a silk chiffon evening dress of yellow and orange floral print with asymmetrical ruffles.
The saffron-hued tablecloths topped with sheer gold overlays were unfolded onto the dozen or so round tables set up in the State Dining Room (search), one of the Bushes' preferred entertaining spots.
The tables were topped with layered centerpieces of saffron and hot pink roses, green mums and denobrium orchids on golden tripods, while another flower arrangement fashioned green button mums and Hot Lady roses to look like trumpeting elephants.
The vermeil flatware and good crystal were brought out, along with the Clinton china, which was used at the state dinner for Kenya's president nearly two years ago. It is bone-colored with broad, golden rims and a golden image of the White House in the center of the dinner plates.
The White House has been without an executive chef since Walter Scheib III left early this year, but the night's menu didn't seem to suffer.
The 134 dinner guests, including the president and first lady, were dining on four courses — chilled asparagus soup and lemon creme; pan-roasted halibut, ginger-carrot butter, basmati rice with pistachio nuts and currants and herbed summer vegetables; and salad of Bibb lettuces and citrus vinaigrette.
"Our assistant White House chefs are fantastic," Whitson said.
For dessert, pastry chef Thaddeus Dubois whipped up chocolate lotus blossoms — the lotus flower is a religious symbol in both Hinduism and Buddhism, two of India's religions — to accompany a trio of mango, chocolate-cardamom and cashew ice creams.
Another 126 people were invited for after-dinner entertainment by a jazz band.
Bush, known to hit the sack around 9 p.m., dislikes the pomp and pageantry of the presidency and has shied away from such big dinners, where an invitation sometimes is seen as a measure of Washington social status. Consequently, he lags behind some of his predecessors.
President Reagan held 57 state dinners during his two terms and Bush's father, the first President Bush, held more than two dozen such events during his single term in office.