French food and French wine at a White House banquet for the president of France? The answer at the state dinner for Jacques Chirac was a very polite "non."
"We're not trying to out-French the French," said American-born chef Walter Scheib, who centered Thursday night's menu on rack of lamb with all-American huckleberry sauce. "We are trying to do what is most interesting in this country with the best American ingredients available."That went for the wine as well. Two California vintages were served.
The Clintons, the Chiracs and 130 guests were seated at round tables in the State Dining Room, each centered by a towering candelabra topped with flowers.
President Clinton opened his dinner toast on a historic and culinary note.
When Thomas Jefferson returned to the United States after serving as minister to France, his "fondness for everything French," including the country's wine and cuisine, opened him to attack as being virtually un-American, Clinton said.
"Patrick Henry struck the harshest blow," he noted. "He denounced Jefferson for "abjuring his native victuals" in favor of French cuisine.
But Jefferson survived the tempest, went on to become president and today, Clinton said, Americans consider a good French dinner "a supreme treat and not high treason."
Chirac, having spent his youth at American universities and working for a while at a Howard Johnson's restaurant on Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., said he was a Thomas Jefferson in reverse, with a great love for American culture and American food.
Hillary Rodham Clinton joined her husband in the receiving line at the black-tie event for what was by far the greatest sparkle of stars of any Clinton state dinner so far.
The first lady wore a floor-length black gown by Oscar de la Renta who was among the guests.
Actor Michael Douglas, fresh from his title role in "The American President," paused to note that the state dinner in the movie was also for a president of France.
When Douglas, who plays President Andrew Shepherd in the film, reached the elected president, Clinton called out, "Would you like to stand here?" Then he twirled the actor into the place of honor and reached out like a guest to shake his hand.
The guest list also included architect I.M. Pei and Michael Eisner, chief executive officer of the Disney Corp.
The guests and the food shared top billing.
The menu, three months in the planning, opened with a soup combining lemon thyme lobster with roasted eggplant. The rack of lamb, served on plates from the Franklin Roosevelt administration, was melded with sweet potato puree, root vegetables and taragon huckleberry sauce.
But the most spectacular menu offering was the towering pyramid concocted by White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier.
A foot in height, it was built with balls of apple and cherry sherbet with apple brandy sauce and circled with small pastry swans swimming on a bed of dark red raspberries.
At the top: a swirl of make-believe spouting water made of a froth of spun sugar.