Moxie Alfresco

Let the cooler temps lead you outside to dine on seasonal dishes

Photos by Sue Root Photography

Celebrated chef Tom Gray loves to play with food. When he and Sarah Marie Johnston, his wife and business partner, created their signature restaurant five years ago, Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails at the St Johns Town Center, it signified an experiential stop on Chef Gray’s culinary journey. Moxie showcases contemporary regional cuisine chock full of influences from Gray’s southern upbringing, extensive travels, and past professional experiences. The restaurant’s food philosophy is to use as many locally grown, sustainable, organic ingredients as possible. Thus, the restaurant strikes two simultaneous chords in its food and ambience — nostalgia and seasonal immersion.

For Gray, childhood summers spent with family in Maine provided the tactile aspect of working with food, which, any chef will tell you, is how the seed is planted.

“We learned how to shuck peas, grow tomatoes, it was quite a foundation. My uncle kept bees. He drank whiskey out of a coffee cup, and he taught me about real red-eye gravy, how it’s made. I loved food even as a kid.”

Eating lobster rolls at roadside stands, cooking wild-caught venison, these are among his early memories of food. The restaurant’s namesake is another – Moxie is a carbonated beverage, lovingly described as “Distinctively Different.”

These personal experiences have led Gray toward a true respect for and partnership with local farmers and producers of artisan products.

“When you know the family who tend the chickens and gather the eggs, it’s part of a larger connection. It makes a difference on the plate and in the community,” says Gray.

The conscious choice to operate with a full-circle “farm-to-fork” perspective is Johnston and Gray’s way of creating and supporting the kind of community they want to live in. A list of purveyor/partners is featured on Moxie’s menu and on their website.

As for the ambience, much has been written about Moxie’s architectural details. The space exudes gravitas, yet is punctuated throughout with fun, unexpected textures and finishes. The journey that is Gray’s culinary career is literally imprinted in the design of the restaurant. Jacksonville artist Mico Fuentes created a massive map, charting the course of Tom and Sarah Marie’s years of personal and culinary experiences.

But once the temperatures fall, it’s the outside dining areas that may be best suited to enjoying what comes out of his gleaming open kitchen. Both of the two outdoor spaces have full-service dining and the upstairs has a full bar. The outdoor seating on the downstairs patio is loungy, comfortable, with couches and umbrella-covered tables. The upstairs feels modern and fun, with a covered, L-shaped expanse and tables that enjoy a blissful cross-breeze.

When designing their outdoor areas, “We actually went back to the designers and told them they needed to rough it up a little,” Gray says. “It was looking too serious, we wanted it to be more fun and relaxed.”

“When you’re shopping, having a busy day, you should be able to come here and be comfortable, not take yourself or us too seriously,” Johnston adds.

We suggest heading outdoors to slowly sip a glass of San Simeon Monterey Pinot Noir (read about it next page), picked especially for savoring alfresco. Of course, its notes of red fruit, cinnamon, and oak spice pair well with autumn’s ingredients and flavors, too. Picture yourself enjoying titillating food, beautiful wine, and the cool air, and as the soft drink’s catch-phrase puts it, “Live your life with Moxie.”

4972 Big Island Drive, St. Johns Town Center, 998-9744.

Get Chef Tom Gray’s recipe for Pan-Seared Chicken Breast with Whipped Rutabaga + Black Walnut Vinaigrette here.

Pair it with:

San Simeon Monterey Pinot Noir 2014

Grapes: Pinot Noir

Description: San Simeon Pinot Noir is a rich, fruit-driven wine with ripe flavors of black cherry and raspberry. The mouth is soft and round with a lingering finish. Aromas of bright red fruit, cinnamon, and oak spice are revealed on the fragrant nose.

The Riboli Family farms estate vineyards in Monterey in order to ensure the ultimate level of grape quality. The Loma Vista and Sarmento Vineyards embody the family’s commitment to estate grown wines. Both vineyards share spectacular views of the Santa Lucia Highlands, and were chosen for their well-drained, alluvial soils and cool, coastal microclimates.

This dedication to quality continues in the cellar, where winemakers Anthony Riboli and Arnaud Debons employ traditional techniques to preserve the individual flavors and terroir of each parcel of land. All vineyard lots are fermented separately in small, open-top tanks in which the cap is ‘punched down’ in order to delicately extract color without creating excessive tannins. After fermentation, the wine is aged in French oak barrels for ten months.

Author: Arbus

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