News & Politics

A Night Out: Cherry Blossom Party

We guzzled sake and feasted on a five-course meal—prepared by Chef Robert Irvine— with a large crowd of pink-clad Washingtonians in support of this year's Cherry Blossom Festival.

Saddie Glasgow, Michael Phelps and Margaret Webster. Photographs by Chris Leaman.

What: Second Annual National Cherry Blossom Festival Pink-Tie Party

Where: The Madison hotel, 1177 15th St., NW

When: Wednesday, February 27, 6 to 10 PM

Ticket price: $150

Who: The 250-person sold-out event was packed with DC tourism-industry folks, including reps from Cultural Tourism DC, the Washington DC Convention and Tourism Corporation, and Guest Services—you know, those people in the kiosks on the Mall. The event’s sponsors—Target, Mitsubishi, and Southwest Airlines, among others—also had a strong showing. Boldface names were hard to come by, but DC’s deputy mayor, Neil Albert, made an appearance, as did Steve Moore, the National Cherry Blossom Festival’s board chair and president and CEO of the DC Economic Partnership.

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Scene: “Fashionably late” was not the mantra of the evening; the party was packed with pink-dressed Washingtonians by 6:30—and for good reason. The preparty reception, which ran until 7:30, boasted two well-stocked bars, a sake bar with more than 20 kinds of the Japanese drink, hors d’oeuvres of fresh sushi and iced wasabi oysters, and a robust silent auction with 130 items. The best deals were the four Southwest Airlines tickets up for grabs, good for travel wherever the carrier flies, and the dozen luxury hotel accommodations that were going for far less than their value. The most interesting auction items: a white Japanese wedding kimono (valued at $1,000) and a role as an extra in a Russell Crowe/Ben Affleck/Helen Mirren/Rachel McAdams flick (valued as “priceless,” but bidding started at $300).

At 7:30, the 250 guests shuffled into the main dining room, an awkwardly designed two-tiered space that made sitting on the upper deck feel like the peanut gallery; it was a good thing there wasn’t much to see, presentation-wise. There were a few speeches—obscured by the loud chitchat of the peanuters—and two short video presentations, but the main event was the food. Diana Mayhew, president of the organization, announced at the beginning that—surprise!—we were being taped by the Food Network. (We were wondering what the deal was with the camera crew and boom mike.) Apparently, the Pink Tie Party was doubling as an episode of the show Dinner Impossible, with prima-donna celebrity Chef Robert Irvine making our food. Mayhew hinted that it had been a stressful ride so far—“We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into; we have no idea what the food will be”—and that working with the chef was basically every party planner’s worst nightmare. We didn’t know the half of it until Irvine himself took the stage later.

The evening wrapped up around 10 without much fanfare aside from a massive (and slow-moving) line at the coat check—but I guess that’s what happens when spring-wardrobe-clad Washingtonians are faced with the harsh reality of 18-degree temperatures and 19-mile-per-hour winds.

: In addition to the hors d’oeuvres, Irvine cooked up a five-course Japanese feast. It started with a brothy bean soup served in what looked like a coffee mug and ended with a crème-brûlée-meets-green-Jello dessert that Irvine called “green-tea panna cotta.” The centerpiece of the meal was the bento box, Japan’s version of takeout, which traditionally includes rice, fish, or meat and one or more pickled or cooked vegetables. Irvine’s version had a juicy seared fish fillet, a dumpling, a fried jumbo shrimp, a dry and flavorless chicken skewer, and some sort of fried potato ball bathed in cream sauce. Coffee came at the end but, strangely enough, was served only to the lucky few who were able to flag down a waiter; it felt as though the affair had run overtime, so coffee became secondary to shuffling the herds out the door.

Irvine took the stage after dinner to thank his team of chefs and Japanese culinary teachers who had helped him make the meal a success. He disclosed that his day had started at 8 AM at the National Arboretum, where he first learned that he’d have to concoct a Japanese meal (a cuisine he says he’s never attempted) for 250 guests (among them, members of the Embassy of Japan) in 9½ hours (though after successfully taping the arboretum segment, he had only 5½). To make the magic happen, Irvine was joined by a team of about ten American and Japanese chefs and sous chefs, including a master sushi chef named Fuji with 30 years of experience, an army of a waitstaff, and a Japanese cultural and culinary expert who nixed and approved each course and spent several hours handmaking each fried dumpling. With such a robust team, the show might more be aptly named Dinner Probably Possible, but I guess we’ll have to save our judgment until we get a more behind-the-scenes look when the episode airs this July.

Boldface names: 2 out of 5
Swankiness: 3 out of 5
Food and drink: 4 out of 5
Exclusivity: 3 out of 5

Total: 12 out of 20