South rises at Jackson 20

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Jackson 20, the restaurant in the new Kimpton Hotel Monaco on King Street in Old Town Alexandria, is named for Andrew Jackson, which is fitting. His portrait graces the $20 bill. The food is better than good; the service is OK; the wine list includes 20 bottles at $20 each - but, oh, the noise.

The restaurant is all hard surfaces, and as soon as the level of conversation drops, the thump, thump, thump of a canned beat oppresses the crowded room.

If it weren’t for the decibel level - even when the dining room is just half full - Jackson 20 would be a real treat. Chef Jeff Armstrong comes to Alexandria by way of Texas and California, and much of his youth was spent on his family’s farm in North Carolina. His cooking is American with Southern inspiration.

Diners are greeted by a large, friendly bronze pig at the entrance, and napkin rings are delightful pewter pigs. Despite the emphasis on the noble porker, the menu includes only a pork chop - no ham, bacon, ribs or pork roast. The chop is well-seasoned, but not brined to buttery tenderness as it could be. It’s served with a generous portion of sauteed Swiss chard, a few onion rings and a delicious hot grilled peach half.

The Southern roots appear in an excellent appetizer of juicy fried green tomatoes topped with a buttermilk dressing with bits of crabmeat that makes the dish special.

Southern influences abound in vegetables: creamed corn and braised kale with fried chicken; corn pudding with the roasted half chicken; black-eyed peas with a crispy whole fish; smothered okra with grilled brook trout, served boned and perfectly cooked.

Fish in general gets high marks. King salmon was cooked just long enough to retain its moist, rich flavor and was served with a nice mix of pole beans and cherry tomatoes.

Starters include a lump crab cake; sauteed shrimp with buttermilk biscuits and tasso ham gravy; scallops with leeks and a sweet-potato crisp; and a delicious, unusual version of shrimp Louie in which extra-large shrimp are chopped into bite-sized pieces and served in a spicy remoulade sauce enhanced with capers. Decorated with frisee lettuce and small asparagus, this is one of the chef’s best dishes.

We started a recent dinner with asparagus soup, which turned out to be a sophisticated, smooth chilled soup with a slight taste of English peas. The soup is made without cream; it’s both light and refreshing, perfect for a hot summer night by the Potomac.

Meat courses, aside from the pork chop, include a sirloin and a rib-eye steak, the former accompanied by fried potatoes and a tomato bearnaise, while the rib-eye comes with a bacon-cheese-potato gratin and wilted spinach.

The lowly meatloaf gets a glamour turn by being made of veal. It’s finely textured and delicately flavored, topped with house-made ketchup that complements the veal nicely. For vegetarians, there’s a three-cheese baked penne dish that incorporates smoked tomatoes and English peas.

Desserts are not up to the standard of appetizers and main courses, although the house special of peanut-butter mousse bars coated in dark chocolate with a jus of grape jelly and caramel sauce is an unusual treat for lovers of peanut butter. The pecan pie isn’t pie, but a small round cake made of chopped pecans.

Lunch is a shortened version of dinner starters and main courses. The kitchen also prepares half a dozen sandwiches, including a meatloaf club and a catfish po’ boy.

The bar is animated, the restaurant noisy, and the open kitchen, where dishes are dropped and broken frequently, adds nothing to the ambience. The clientele is mostly young with a few old-timers scattered about, but the food is good, and the $20 bottles are a bargain. Jackson 20 is a relaxed, friendly place. If you don´t mind noise, go and have a good time. Take earplugs.

RESTAURANT: Jackson 20, 480 King St., Alexandria, 703/842-2790

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