White House dinner icing on SKorea charm offensive

October 13, 2011 - 6:00 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — First came an intimate dinner at a suburban Korean restaurant. Next, the all-out opulence of a White House state dinner in the East Room.

In between, it was lunch on the State Department's fine china.

President Barack Obama deployed maximum culinary diplomacy this week to signal his high regard for South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

Thursday's state visit by the South Korean leader got off to a soggy start under umbrellas at a pared-down morning arrival ceremony on the South Lawn. The usual 21-gun salute fell victim to the weather.

But inside the White House, it was full speed ahead with preparations for an East Room dinner adorned in deep fall colors and mums and hydrangeas mixed with fresh apples.

A four-course, fall harvest dinner was being whipped up using vegetables and herbs from the White House garden. Guests were dining on butternut squash bisque, a salad featuring daikon sheets and masago rice pearl crispies in a nod to Korean traditions, wagyu beef from Texas and chocolate cake served with a blend of Korean and American pears.

There were Korean elements in the décor too, including Korean knotting on the menu cards, deep red bamboo vases on some tables and chrysanthemums in the fall-colored floral arrangements. In Korea, bamboo represents integrity, and chrysanthemums are a sign of a productive and fruitful life, the White House said.

The entertainment lineup mixed East and West: The Aghn trio features three sisters born in Seoul and reared in New York who play piano, violin and cello. Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Janelle Monae, from Kansas City, Kan., also was performing.

The rain — and a tornado watch by early evening — wasn't going to scare off dinner guests lucky enough to snag a ticket for Washington's most sought-after A-list event.

The guest list was an eclectic assortment. Tennis star Billie Jean King made the cut. So did Ford CEO Alan Mullaly. Trauma surgeon Peter Rhee, a member of the medical team that treated Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after she was shot in January, came in from Arizona. San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro cut short a trade mission to — where else? — South Korea.

Obama has developed a special rapport with Lee: The two clicked during Obama's first trip to Asia in 2009, and the signs of friendship were manifold during his visit to Washington.

Obama and Lee hopped into a limo and headed to a Korean restaurant in a Virginia suburban for dinner Wednesday night. And during dinner, Obama shared the long-awaited news — hot off his BlackBerry — that Congress had finished work on a free-trade agreement with South Korea.

Vice President Joe Biden got in on the charm offensive at a Thursday luncheon of lemongrass sesame chicken in the State Department's opulent Ben Franklin Room. He took note of Lee's nickname "Bulldozer" and said Lee, slight of build, doesn't look anything like an NFL linebacker, but had earned his nickname by taking apart and reassembling a bulldozer to figure out how to make it work better.

Biden called that a testament to Lee's perseverance and patience in pursuit of practical solutions.

Lee, for his part, made sure to point out that the bulldozer had been made by Caterpillar, an American company.

Michelle Obama got in on the diplomatic outreach too, taking South Korean first lady Kim Yoon-ok on a morning field trip to a high school in Annandale, Va., that has a large bloc of Korean-American students.

This was the first White House state visit to include a "tweetup," offering a few hundred Americans the chance to attend the morning arrival ceremony and live tweet about it. The tweetup was in peril when heavy rain threatened to turn the arrival ceremony into a smaller, indoor event that couldn't accommodate the "tweeps." But at the last minute, the rain eased up enough to allow the event to go forward outside.

"Yup. Totally shook hands with the President. Nbd," (no big deal), tweeted 23-year-old Alex Nagler, who came down from New York. Afterward, sitting at a nearby Starbucks in soaking shoes, Nagler reported, "It was nice to see what's purely a diplomatic event turned into something for the general populace."

Dub Pool, a 53-year-old church administrator from Annapolis, Md., chimed in with this tweet: "Stood in the rain 3 hrs at South Lawn of the White House. Soaked to the skin. Totally worth it."

Yup, Pool got to shake the president's hand too. But he said it was a little tricky to fire off tweets in the rain.

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  Darlene Superville can be reached at http://twitter.com/dsupervilleap . Nancy Benac can be reached at http://twitter.com/nbenac