Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Washington Social Diary

"Lincoln's Cottage" from the front.
Washington When it Sizzles
By Carol Joynt

Washington’s warm weather months are famous. We may, in fact, be geographically in the Mid-Atlantic, but our summers are Southern. Urban legends abound about how diplomats have coped over the years. In the era before air conditioning the British Embassy staff got hardship status for enduring the Washington heat and humidity.

President and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln moved out of the White House to a cottage on the higher and breezier grounds of the Old Soldier’s Home, three miles to the north. Richard Moe, head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, who renovated the cottage and recently opened it to public tours, said in an email, “Lincoln found it appealing because it was usually six or seven degrees cooler there than downtown.”

From the rear, with the porch facing south toward Alexandria, Va., which was the view back in the late 1800's.
The Gothic front door from the inside. Can you see President Lincoln arriving home from the three mile commute from the White House?
In the spirit of the heat wave we retraced Lincoln’s route from the White House to the cottage and got a brief tour from George Rogers, its Director of Development. He opened some windows to illustrate the breeze and explained that even though the house is called “Lincoln’s Cottage,” it was also used by Presidents Buchanan, Johnson, Grant, Hayes, and Garfield. It was Lincoln’s refuge during the Civil War, though, and Rogers said that in the summer he would commute each day from the cottage to the White House and back again.

Presidents weren’t the only Washington residents to move to higher ground to escape the heat. It was the custom to leave the lower, swampy regions of the city to “head to the hills,” though hills here are not much beyond 300 feet above sea level. Thus the creation of Cleveland Park, where President Grover Cleveland established his “summer White House.” Today the White House is fully cooled, has a swimming pool and the President has Camp David, too, in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland.

I mention all this because, like New York and other parts of the East Coast, this weekend we got hit with our first heat wave of the year. Monday was declared “code red.” The heat arrived after a couple of days of fierce thunderstorms that took down trees and knocked out power in a number of neighborhoods. For some of those locations the power was still out on Sunday and Monday, when temps scaled the high 90s. Residents flocked to public and private pools, the beach, movie theaters, malls, or just stayed indoors. The residential streets on Sunday were so empty and quiet they looked the way they do in the fall when the Redskins play Dallas.
George Rogers opens one of the floor to ceiling windows at "Lincoln's Cottage." The main hall, with its original floors and woodwork.
Clockwise from top left: The upstairs room thought to be the bedrooms used by presidents; The cool, clean upstairs hall restored to its original colors; The main parlor: spare, quiet, cool.
In Georgetown, for me, a favorite way to cool off is to take a walk along the shaded C&O Canal and then visit the outdoor café at Michel Richard’s Citronelle. Citronelle is best known as one of the city’s most formal restaurants and is highly regarded by foodies far and wide. Michel was the 2007 James Beard Award winner for Best Outstanding Chef. But while he has a dressed up dining room inside, with haute food and haute prices, Michel has a casual café outside, with his version of “bar” food and lower prices.

It’s shady and breezy and features the city’s best fresh cocktails and summer-ready Vichyssoise and Fried Chicken. There also are plates of salad, chilled smoked salmon and prosciutto sliced as thin as tissue paper, and a lovely Meringue and Sorbet dessert. My favorite of Michel’s summer drinks is his take on the Mojito, which incorporates champagne with the white rum, fresh mint and lime. It’s air conditioning on the rocks. But not to be missed is his unique Cosmopolitan. Seriously, though, just one … or else.
Clockwise from top left: Michel Richard's Mojito - air conditioning on the rocks; The bar menu; A peek inside the outdoor bar menu. The prices are lower than the formal menu for the main restaurant inside; Michel Richard's (French) Fried Chicken with Dijon Sauce; Citronelle's Cosmopolitan, with fresh summer fruit on the side.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol Joynt is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.