Members of Washington society, Congress, and the diplomatic corps gathered Monday night for the kind of dinner party that could only happen in a world capital: a confluence of official position, government power, real money, and historic occasion. The dinner happened at the Embassy Row residence of the ambassador of the Netherlands, Rudolf Bekink, and his wife, Austin, Texas, business executive Gabrielle de Kuyper Sheshunoff Bekink. The guests numbered 60 and included eight or more current and former ambassadors; the money (theirs) was quiet but not too quiet; and the occasion was royal—to observe the abdication Tuesday morning of Queen Beatrix and the investiture of her son, Willem-Alexander, as the first Dutch king in more than a century.
It takes a clever hostess to make such an occasion deftly span the borders of American sensibility while paying appropriate tribute to a monarchy, and to add a glorious flourish: Dutch springtime. Dozens of flowers imported from Holland—tulips, of course, but also roses, orchids, amaryllis, and peonies—were arrayed in all the public rooms of the mansion, on every flat surface, every corner, every table, in large and small, complicated and simple arrangements, in vases, bowls, cachepots, tureens, and pewter mugs, lending the scent and feel of a lavish garden. Gabrielle Bekink eagerly gave credit where credit was due—she imported Austin floral designer David Kurio to work his magic with the blossoms.
This very old-school, mannered, and elegant Washington evening provided a welcome rebound from the weekend of the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, with its often cloying and conspicuous extravagance. Queen Beatrix (now a princess) and new King Willem and Queen Maxima would be proud—in part because of the successive toasts given in their honor by the ambassadors of Lichtenstein, Belgium, Luxembourg, Monaco, Norway, and Finland, as well as Michigan congressman Peter Hoekstra and two former ambassadors from the US to the Netherlands, Cynthia Schneider and Terry Dornbush.
Ambassador Bekink made the first toast, to Queen Beatrix, and added a little humor. “It’s her last day as Queen of the Netherlands,” he said. “As of tomorrow she’ll be Princess of Orange-Nassau. She abdicates, as is now the tradition in my country. Her mother did so, her grandmother did so, and the Pope did so.” He said he is happy to be “Her Majesty’s ambassador, but soon I will be His Majesty’s ambassador, and all the letterheads will have to be changed.” Noting the seriousness of the occasion, he said, “It is great to have so many representatives here of other European monarchies. I think it’s an institution that is worthwhile.” When he said that, the British ambassador, Peter Westmacott, nodded his head in agreement. At the end, Bekink raised his glass and said, “I’d like to propose a toast to Her Majesty and, tomorrow, His Majesty.” The room filled with a chorus of “hear, hear.” Ambassador Westmacott observed that the Dutch, unlike the British, are at ease with abdication.
Bekink singled out one ambassador in particular, Cecilia Nahón of Argentina, who has been in her post for only two months. Queen Maxima is also from Argentina. Nahón’s husband, Sergio Garcia Gomez, was my dinner partner. They are economists and she is a first-time ambassador. They have two young children and are settling into DC life as diplomats and parents. Garcia Gomez recalled the day the whole family went to the White House so his wife could present her credentials to President Obama. The Monday afternoon ceremony occurred at the same time the President was learning about the Boston Marathon bombings, and Garcia Gomez was impressed by how Obama stayed informed about the drama unfolding in Boston but also gave his wife his full attention and an appropriate diplomatic welcome.
Since Garcia Gomez is a native of Mexico, we also talked about where to find good, authentic Mexican cuisine in DC. After all, Cinco de Mayo is nearly upon us. “In your country it’s celebrated very differently than in my country,” he said. Yes, we eat Tex-Mex and drink lots of margaritas. “But I understand,” he said with a laugh.
The Washington restaurant scene has an interesting connection to the Netherlands ambassador’s residence. Maybe a decade ago the chef there was a young Belgian named Bart Vandaele. As most Washingtonians know, Vandaele went on to open his own restaurant, Belga, and appeared in last season’s Top Chef. He is about to open his second DC spot, B Too. The city’s foodies should keep an eye on the residence’s current chef, Christina Owen (whom Gabrielle Bekink also imported from Austin), because Monday night’s menu had a made-for-Bravo flair. We started with an amuse-bouche of torched salmon belly, peppadew-chili vinegar, and tomato-cucumber salad, followed by pickled beets with radish, dried olive soil, and goat cheese foam, and an entree of pan-seared halibut with Littleneck clams and summer corn chowder. For dessert: a rich salted caramel chocolate torte with vanilla marshmallow and pistachio brittle dust. I was a member of the clean-plate club, which is not routine. A Las Perdices Pinot Grigio, a Marina Burlotto Barbera D’Alba, and a Macon Loche Chardonnay served as the wine pairings.
Over the next several months countries all over the world, especially other monarchies, will watch and measure the fledgling reign of King Willem and Queen Maxima. On the other hand, I’ll be watching the Netherlands ambassador’s residence, remembering the flowers, and wondering what’s on the menu.