Monday, May 25, 2009

Bessie Knows Best

The Conventional Wisdom for those of us that frequent Old Town Alexandria is that, particularly on King Street, the further away from the water the better the restaurant. While this adage may ring true for less-than stellar destinations right on the river that mostly rely on tourist foot traffic, exceptions must be made: La Bergerie on Lee Street, and Jackson 20, half a block away from Market Square.

I've often found a perch at the Bar at Jackson 20 to enjoy the view and the cocktails, Located on the edge of a dark wood dinning room with a picture window on one side and an open plan kitchen on the other, it is a good place to unwind, watch some random sports on an available but never intrusive TV set, and chat with some of Old Town's friendliest bar tenders. Jackson 20 is a restaurant with a sense of humor - the centerpiece of the dining room is Bessie, an often-costumed pig. To find a bust of Mr. Jackson, he of 20 dollar bill fame, you will have to head for the back door. The courtyard, an ample space for beautiful nights away from the bustle of King Street, also hosts the storied Doggie Happy Hour, a tradition that Kimpton kept when they took over the property a few years ago.

On this particular outing I got to sit with a group of writers at the Chef's table, a large marble slab opposite the bar. We started with cocktails. While my favorite is the Honeysuckle (Absolut Ruby Red, grapefruit juice, honey syrup and muddled ginger), this time around I decided to try the Presidential Punch, concocted for Obama's inauguration - a delightful and unlikely combination of Cacha├ža, peach Schnapps, sparkling cider, house-made raspberry syrup, accompanied with fresh apples, peaches, and pineapple. The fruit at the bottom truly makes it a punch, and it puts one's stomach in good stead for the Southern-inspired food to come.

For an appetizer, I ordered the Scallop and Shrimp Brochette, a skewer wrapped in bacon with a side of grits and greens. I was looking forward to the dish, as I love scallops and what Chef Denis Marron does with them. While the grits were creamy and the greens peppery and fresh, the bacon overwhelmed the proteins. The kitchen also sent us shrimp fritters (fried just enough to keep them doughy and hot) and ham sliders, the perfect size for a bar bite - Country ham with fresh-made slaw on a biscuit with a great salty taste, but a bit dry.

In between courses I switched to a glass of Oregon Pinot Noir - Jackson 20 has an extensive selection of wines by the glass, as well as some funky wines for 20 dollars a bottle.
As a main dish, I decided to go for the full rack of ribs, after securing promises from around the table that I would get some help with them. At 20 dollars (10 for half), the dish is one of the best dinner deals in Old Town - a portion big enough to share (and a plate that had to be carried out by the Chef, insert Flinstones jokes here.) The pork ribs were cooked just right - the meat came right off as I went through the motions of using a fork, extra sauce was at hand: the smell was complex without being overly pungent, with a top note of all spice and hints of chocolate, topped with a dusting of chives. The smashed potatoes were well-seasoned, and I would have finished them were it not for the Virginia Cheddar Macaroni & Cheese Casserole that we ordered for the table - the bacon and ham hock gave it an added texture and smoke without making it too salty, and the top was crusty in all the right ways.

Once I secured a box for my ribs (even with all that help), I joined in the partaking of a cross-selection of desserts. My favorite was the Pecan-Chocolate Pie, a reminder that NoVa is, in fact, Virginia. A tall chocolate pie, it has the consistency of a very dense mousse (or a very fluffy pudding), a buttery crust, and a good quantity of pecans, topped with a dollop of Chantilly Cream. A close second was the Blueberry Cobbler with buttermilk ice cream, a well-rounded combination of hot/cold/tart/sweet. As opposed to many cobblers, the starch could have stood up on its own in terms of taste and texture. The Lime Meringue Tart and the Banana Pudding, both beautifully presented, would make many grandmothers proud.

Pay your respects to Bessie next time you're in Old Town. She'll even be a a good sport about the barbeque sauce-stained napkin you'll leave behind.

Jackson 20 @ Hotel Monaco, Old Town
480 King Street
Alexandria, VA 22314

Jackson 20 on Urbanspoon

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