Perfect 20

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President, Partier Andrew Jackson Would be Proud of Namesake

In this election season, it seems fitting that chef Jeff Armstrong has chosen to name his new venture in Old Town Alexandria, Va., after former U.S. President Andrew Jackson, the face on the bill. Known as “Old Hickory” for his robustness, Jackson was a noted partier (he was the first president to hold two inaugural balls) and would feel right at home here. Even on a midweek evening, the bar is hopping.

The liveliness is partly because Armstrong and the Puccini Group designers have created an inviting, comfortable space. Large windows the length of the bar and dining room, which merge together with little demarcation, give wonderful sidewalk views of passing street life. Inside, wood-beamed ceilings, brick and stone architectural features, and furnishings in a palette of warm earth tones pay tribute to Old Town Alexandria’s historical character, but the feeling is anything but antique.

Armstrong comes to the D.C. dining scene from the executive chef position at Keswick Hall in Monticello, Va. Like Jackson, Armstrong hails from the Carolinas, and it was his great-grandmother’s kitchen in Goldsboro, N.C., that he turned to for inspiration.

His earliest kitchen experiences taught him the value of freshness and simplicity, the hallmarks of the fare at Jackson 20. Although many of the dishes are homey and give a nod to his Southern beginnings, Armstrong is not simply reworking the comfort food theme. He has mixed things up, taking time-honored traditions and adding components that convert classic to contemporary—giving heirloom frames to trendy ingredients.

The fried chicken, crispy in its buttermilk-batter coat, transcends that other famous Southern colonel’s fowl with its accompaniments of an updated hoppin’ john rice-and-beans recipe made of wild rice, green onion and perfectly braised kale dressed with a Dijon butter sauce that’s full of big lumps of crab. What a combination! Ahi tuna, probably never on any of Old Hickory’s menus, is served here with a traditional corn squash potato cake and tobacco onions in red wine.

The appetizers (featuring primarily seafood), soups and salads make for perfect light meals as well as starters for a more formal meal. The crab cake, a slightly messy pile of big lumps of crabmeat with virtually no filler and only mildly spiced, is served with seasonal slaw and is almost a meal in itself. The sautéed shrimp is worth ordering just to get the excellent brioche-like buttermilk biscuits and tasso ham gravy that come with it. Fritters, meanwhile, are made with barbeque chicken, giving them a slight sweetness that is enhanced by a sorghum chipotle sauce and sweet-and-sour slaw.

Extra touches make many of the dishes extra special. The shrimp and crawfish bisque is served with a tasty crawfish beignet, and the croutons for the Caesar-like salad are made of brioche. And the breadbasket, consisting of little cornbreads and rolls, is served with a honey-butter sauce good enough to eat right off the spoon.

From veal-based meatloaf to melt-off-the-bone slow-braised short ribs, the meat choices are equally satisfying. One of Armstrong’s signature dishes is a bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin with thyme-scented jus. Served with pearl onion ragout and a generous helping of the excellent collard greens, it gives twice-cooked pork a whole new meaning. The ribeye, well marbled and full of flavor, is grilled and set off with a kicky horseradish cream. Paired with smoked bacon-gouda potato gratin and tender wilted spinach, this is a classic meat-and-potatoes option.

On the fish side, Armstrong’s grilled salmon is elegant. A thick, perfectly grilled filet, slightly crusty on the outside and moist inside, the salmon is served atop a rich polenta with pan-seared brussel sprouts. Tracings of brown butter and caper Dijon vinaigrette encircle the dish, making a lovely presentation. And presentation is one of the appealing features at Jackson 20. Each dish is designed to entice the diner to eat, rather than admire, the food—as has become the fashion in a certain sort of restaurant.

Jackson 20 offers one vegetarian entrée, a three-cheese baked penne pasta. This very rich dish is accented with thin strips of sundried tomatoes and English peas, which, despite the baking, stay bright, green and slightly crunchy. If one of the other side dishes is not appealing, this makes a nice side option for the table.

But the sides at Jackson are notable. The size of the portions makes them perfect to share for the table, or sampling a few makes a nice meatless alternative for a main course. Long spears of lightly steamed asparagus are dressed with capers and chopped egg. The creamed corn—slightly crunchy, fresh, sweet white corn with a buttery parmesan cheese—is some of the best we have ever tasted. The excellent collards are coarsely chopped, braised and seasoned with thick chunks of smoked bacon and caramelized onions. And the elusive cheddar fries with chive cream are a special treat, if you can get them.

The cocktail menu at Jackson 20 also deserves special recognition. Jacques Bezuidenhout, a master mixologist who is the current chairman of the San Francisco chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild, has created 10 original drinks that tempt the palate with sweet, spicy, sour and bitter concoctions. Try the Forbidden Fruit. Featuring cane rum, passion fruit, pineapple juices and a tawny port float, it goes down as easily as Sunday morning orange juice (and just as quickly). The Honeysuckle is as sweet as its name, with red vodka, grapefruit juice, honey syrup and muddled ginger.

The only taste dimension missing on the drink menu is salty. But it’s there in abundance in many of the dishes—perhaps too much for some health-conscious diners. The shrimp and crawfish bisque in particular, though rich and very delicious, is one of the saltier versions we have tasted.

It is hard to save room for dessert here because there is so much else to sample, but try. Buttermilk pie, sweet potato bread pudding, milk chocolate pot de crème—there is an abundance of good choices. Perhaps the best sweet at Jackson 20 isn’t even on the menu. On a recent evening, the complimentary sweet was a meltingly delicious honey-butter pecan bar so good we had to ask for another.

The dining room at Jackson 20 sits under the watchful eye of a large bronze statue of a pig, whose iconic image is echoed in the napkin rings. Though it’s a cute pig, one diner was inclined to take it personally as our party waddled out having tried to sample almost everything on the menu. That’s just the kind of menu it is.

Jackson 20 adjacent to the Hotel Monaco in Old Town Alexandria 480 King St., Alexandria, Va. (703) 842-2790

Hours: Mon.- Thu. 7 a.m. until 10:30 p.m.; Fri. and Sat. 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. Prices: Small plates: - ; Main courses: - ; Sides: ; Desserts: Dress: Business casual Reservations: Accepted

About the Author

Rachel Hunt and Stephen Qualiana are the restaurant reviewers for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999