Table for Two, Dinner for One

Julie Hirschfeld Davis  September 30, 2014  NYT

The revelations about White House security did not stop President Obama from hosting an invited guest Monday night. But the president’s first face-to-face meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India got off to an awkward start when the two met over a cozy private dinner – but only Mr. Obama actually ate.

The president feasted on an Indian-themed menu including avocados and goat cheese, crisped halibut with basmati rice and mango crème brûlée. Mr. Modi, observing a nine-day fast for the Hindu festival of Navratri, sat before an empty plate, consuming only warm water at his own request.

It was the world leader version of “No, go ahead – you eat.”

Mr. Modi “mentioned that he didn’t want to embarrass anybody,” Syed Akbaruddin, the spokesman for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, said afterward. “He requested that they continue with their normal practice of having the dinner while he would have his warm water.”

About 20 people attended the meal, including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Secretary of State John Kerry, and Susan Rice, the national security adviser, as well as several other American and Indian officials. There was broad discussion of shared priorities, including addressing the Ebola outbreak and the situation in Afghanistan. But substance was largely left to Tuesday’s official talks in the Oval Office, in favor of what Mr. Akbaruddin called a “get-to-know-each-other approach.”

It was a far cry from the the lavish affair Mr. Obama hosted for Mr. Modi’s precedessor, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in November 2009, when more than 300 guests dined on arugula salad, curried prawns and pumpkin pie tart at an event whose bill came to more than $570,000. The formal state dinner, Mr. Obama’s first as president, gained infamy later, after it was learned that it had been crashed by Michaele and Tareq Salahi, Virginians auditioning for a part on the “The Real Housewives of D.C.”

But at the time, there was little drama surrounding the dinner itself; by all accounts, both Mr. Obama and Mr. Singh ate.