A good roll can make a meal, and the old-fashioned knots at Jackson 20 in the new Hotel Monaco in Old Town Alexandria are better than good—maybe even great. Adapted from a Southern recipe, these three-bite morsels are fragrant with yeast and crusty and soft in all the right places. Made by pastry chef Derek Simcik and nestled in the bread basket alongside some perfectly edible but more pedestrian corn muffins, they’re the sort of perk you’d expect at the four-star CityZen, where lilliputian Parker House rolls are proffered like jewels in wooden boxes.
The rolls tell you a lot about Jackson 20, where a life-size bronze pig greets diners at the door. They tell you that someone in the glass-walled open kitchen is paying attention to the little things.
That someone is chef Jeff Armstrong, a Gaithersburg native whose Southern-influenced menu draws on the cooking of his North Carolina grandmother and earlier career stops at such Modern American and French restaurants as Christopher’s in Phoenix, Twist in Santa Monica, and Keswick Hall near Charlottesville. It’s Armstrong’s attention to detail at Jackson 20 that bolsters dish after dish.
Silken lump crab gives heft and flavor to deviled eggs, a bar snack you can order in the dining room, too. Crab also shines in a baked lump-crab cake bound with a hint of seasoned bread crumbs and finished with a creamy, mustardy drizzle that gives the dish bite.
A bundle of crunchy grilled romaine hearts makes for an artful take on the Caesar, with crispy capers and shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano. And a gratin of white-corn kernels bathed in cream and finished with panko bread crumbs is grown-up kid food that you eat more of than you should.
Plates are hearty, and the cooking is never slapdash. Sautéed shrimp dress up biscuits and gravy—the biscuits from a recipe passed down by Jackson’s grandmother, the gravy a savory mix of cream and tasso ham. Braised short ribs, crusted with a sweet-sharp mustard glaze, are paired with perfect mashed potatoes. Bacon intensifies the flavor of juicy pork tenderloin while thyme-scented jus adds the right note of sweetness.
Armstrong also knows when to exercise restraint. Shrimp Louie gets a kick from caper-studded rémoulade and, other than some asparagus and a few tufts of frisée, little else. Tiny steamed clams are steeped in a simple jus of white wine, shallots, and country ham that you’ll want to mop to the last drop.
Vegetables are treated with respect. Greens, whether braised kale or collards with smoked bacon and caramelized onions, still have a bit of chew and are better for it.
Jackson 20 has a reasonable wine list, including 20 bottles for $20 each—the restaurant is named for Andrew Jackson, who appears on the $20 bill.
The fact that Jackson 20 gets so many things right makes the flubs more surprising. Fried oysters get lost in a clump of breading. Grilled veal meatloaf is dry and flavorless, as is the fried chicken breast, which cries out for salt and seasoning.
Buttermilk pie has a lush, tart filling, but the crust almost requires a saw. Better to stick with Simcik’s bourbon-spiked bread pudding or the marvelous peanut-butter bars with their thin dark-chocolate shell and a peanut mousse that has the gooey texture of caramel.
Jackson 20 is a young restaurant, and the missteps may be growing pains. Armstrong is still playing around with the menu. Here’s hoping he continues to flesh out the repertoire of smart yet homespun plates. A few more memorable dishes like the deviled eggs, the Louie, the short ribs, and the pork loin, and Jackson 20, a pretty good restaurant, might become an even better one.