Jackson 20

$$$$ ($25-$34)

Editorial Review

My posse is five minutes into another (loud) new restaurant and already we have lots of questions.

Why is Jackson 20 named after the seventh U.S. president?

What's the deal with the bronze pig up front?

Why does my margarita taste as if it had been made with seawater?

We're told that Andrew Jackson is a more original icon than the ubiquitous George Washington, and yet the name still has a nice presidential ring to it; the reference to 20 refers to Jackson's mug on a $20 bill.

Depending upon whom you ask, that shiny pig is a good luck charm, a nod to Jackson's pet or a sign of hospitality.

As for the chokingly salty cocktails that we sip and reject, twice in the same night, they're the result of a bartender's absent-mindedly adding olive brine -- although our waiter initially tells us it's not sodium we're tasting, but "fresh lime juice."

I feel a long evening coming on.

Then the food starts showing up, and the mood at my table lightens. Crunchy with cornmeal, the fried oysters are respectable, but even better are shrimp spilling out of a split biscuit and treated to ham gravy. Veal meatloaf also mixes in ground beef and pork; the hearty slab is nice and moist. While the short ribs presented with a mountain of sauteed greens register a 10 on the bland-o-meter, the seared rockfish ramped up with tomato jam and set on rich creamed corn is such a hit, the entree barely makes it around the table for everyone to taste.

Chef Jeff Armstrong, 33, says he aimed for "fun food, nothing uptight" when he wrote the menu for the modern-day tavern that adjoins the new Hotel Monaco in Old Town, formerly a Holiday Inn Select. A bit of humor surfaces in a riff on a corn dog that substitutes shrimp for sausage (a bar snack) and a dessert of peanut butter and chocolate that has my table mates comparing its flavor, favorably, to Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Armstrong comes to the area from California, where he worked for the Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group, owner of the Monaco. But he claims local ties, having grown up in Gaithersburg.

The chef hopes to win over more than just hotel guests on expense accounts. His bar plates, none of which cost more than $6, are a step in the right direction. So is the hotel's courtyard, poised to open in warm weather and set to welcome almost as many diners as can fit into the 70-plus-seat dining room.

Dinner entrees, $15-$28.

-- Tom Sietsema (February 27, 2008)