Bold Beginnings at St. Johns Town Center
When your reputation precedes you, how do you reinvent yourself?
That was the challenge that lay before Chef Tom Gray and Sarah Marie Johnston, his wife and business partner, in 2012, when they left Bistro Aix, the San Marco eatery they started in 1999, and set out to create a multi-million dollar signature restaurant at the St Johns Town Center.
Now in its fifth month of operation at the St Johns Town Center, Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails is still very much a work in progress. A bold new destination in the culinary journey that is Chef Tom Gray’s life, “Moxie,” as it is known by a growing number of loyal patrons, showcases contemporary regional cuisine, with influences from Chef Gray’s southern upbringing, extensive travels, and past professional experiences.
Gray’s culinary career began in New York. His culinary roots, however, go much deeper.
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 Maine. The restaurant’s namesake is another – Moxie is a carbonated beverage, lovingly described as “Distinctively Different.” Naturally, it is on the menu.
The journey that is Gray’s culinary career is literally imprinted in the design of the new restaurant. Jacksonville artist Mico Fuentes created a massive map, charting the course of Tom and Sarah Marie’s years of personal and culinary experiences.
Each panel represents a different stage in their lives: from Tom’s childhood in Orange Park to their meeting at the Culinary Institute of America, and, fortunately for us, the road which led them both across country and home to Jacksonville.
The menu also telegraphs the sense of playful nostalgia that is ever present at Moxie. While Chef Tom has taken on a near legendary persona on the local and regional scene, the food is front and center. Grey and his talented team work behind the scenes as well as in the gleaming open kitchen, transforming flavors from our collective childhood memories into simple, thoughtfully prepared dishes, made with quality ingredients, all prepared by hand.
Kettle corn, soft pretzels, corn nuts are all popular starters and make great bar snacks for enjoying with one of their unique craft cocktails after a busy day of shopping.
Crowd favorite entrées include the Chicken Pot Pie–fresh roasted chicken with sage, roasted vegetables and savory sauce baked under a hand-rolled cheddar biscuit; fresh Rainbow Trout filet with smoked almond salsa, seared broccoli and charred lemon, served atop a silken sunchoke purée; and braised Beef Short Rib, dolloped with Dr. Pepper glaze and accented with shaved vegetables, sweet herbs and homey buttermilk mashed potatoes. Seared Diver Scallops are served atop creamy warm cheese grits, accented with a chiffonade of tender spring onion.
Part of Moxie’s food philosophy is to use as many locally grown, sustainable, organic ingredients as possible. In an effort to reduce waste, the restaurant makes its own sparkling and distilled water using a water filtration system. They compact and recycle cardboard, recycle and keep waste to a minimum, all part of their full-circle approach.
Denise and Scott Francis of Twinn Bridges farm in Maclenny partnered with Gray at Bistro Aix, and were happy to expand their offerings, even growing five varieties of kale to accommodate the menu at Moxie Kitchen.
All the eggs served at Moxie, for deviled eggs, egg salad, brunch, come from free-range hens at Cognito Farm outside of Starke. The Griffis family at Cognito Farms are committed to treating animals humanely, rebuilding the land and working with nature to produce healthy food. More importantly, they are passing that heritage to their children. Their girls rise with the sun to help feed their chickens, and occasionally ride along with their father to deliver the 90–120 dozen eggs Moxie orders each week.
“The eggs taste great. And 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 Sarah Marie and Tom’s way of creating and supporting the kind of community they want to live in.
Seminole Pride™ beef steaks come from a herd sustainably and naturally raised by the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Regional specialties such as mayhaw jelly, raw local honey and other finishing touches come from Ryan Hoback at Producing Edibles. A list of purveyor / partners is featured on Moxie’s menu and on their website.
Even with the highest quality ingredients and fresh from scratch preparations factored in, prices for lunch, brunch and dinner menus are in line with many other St Johns Town Center locations. A glance at the menu on their website shows appetizers ranging from $2.50 – $14, entrées from $14–26. Only two entrées top $30–the Seminole Pride New York Strip and Filet Mignon.
Desserts are a work of art at Moxie. Pastry Chef Sylvia Gould capitalizes on the playful theme of Moxie’s cuisine, incorporating playful elements…wildly exaggerated peaks of meringue crown a slice of layer cake, house-made strawberry marshmallows flank real malted milk balls tucked in a layer of caramel icing in a decadent chocolate dessert. Homey hand-pies, warm-from-the-oven skillet cookies, Whoopie pies and malts round out the options. The menu changes frequently, so it’s best to savor these sugary gems before they disappear.
People are connecting with the Moxie experience and sharing their own food memories. “Chicken livers were kind of a gamble for us – but people are loving them” says Gray.
“People tell us they remember their mom or grand-mom making them, now they are excited they can get them here,” adds Sarah Marie. “We hear it all the time, and it really makes us feel great that people are connecting with them in such a personal way.”
Some of the online feedback has been less than positive, which can be painful for the pair and their team, who remain focused on providing the best possible experience for diners.
“We’re listening to all the feedback, figuring out what works, and fixing what doesn’t. We’re hoping people will embrace our concept, but sure, we make mistakes, and we learn from them. It was the same way when we started Bistro Aix, but nobody knew us yet, so it wasn’t as noticeable,” Sarah Marie tells us.
Much has been written about the architectural details (by Atlanta architecture firm ai3)–the indoor-outdoor feel of the upstairs bar/patio areas, the sleek open kitchen design. The space exudes gravitas, yet is punctuated throughout with fun, unexpected textures and finishes.
Moxie’s main dining area is a sea of buttery caramel colored leather circular booths, which envelop diners and help to deflect the noise. Retro-cool leather upholstered chairs conjure up images of vintage luggage. There are rustic touches of warm weathered wood, angular wrought iron details, and vintage style Edison light fixtures which would be equally at home in a retro-urban loft or warehouse. In an upstairs bar area, the back wall sports a cowhide upholstered bench, and upholstered seating areas evoke the feel of elegant patio furniture.
“We actually went back to the designers and told them they needed to rough it up a little,” Grey says. “It was looking too serious, we wanted it to be more fun and relaxed.” Adding that, “Auld & White Constructors has done an outstanding job with the build out.”
“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” Sarah Marie adds. Or as the soft drink’s catch-phrase puts it, “Live your life with Moxie.”
4972 Big Island Drive, St. Johns Town Center, 399-9744.
Get Chef Tom Gray’s recipe for Seared Scallops with Lobster Broth, Cheese Grits and Green Onion Salad
Article written by Nancy White
Grapes: 100% Chardonnay
Description: Aromas of banana, apple, pear, coupled with tropical fruits. Adding to the complexity, the oak aging is fairly integrated adding spice, like nutmeg, vanilla, fresh coconut, and a slight hint of butterscotch. The flavors on the palate are predominantly citrus, lemon-lime and peach.