The Moxie is in the Menu

From the second-floor patio, diners enjoy a tranquil view of the waterscape with the city in the distance.
From the second-floor patio, diners enjoy a tranquil view of the waterscape with the city in the distance. sue root

Chef Tom Gray is charming Jacksonville natives and visitors with fresh Florida ingredients.

Amidst the sea of chains in Jacksonville, Florida, one independent stands out—literally. Chef/owner Tom Gray built Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails as a brand new restaurant within a busy town center already experiencing chain restaurant domination by the likes of The Cheesecake Factory, P.F. Chang’s, The Capital Grille, Seasons 52, and more.

“We are such a proponent of our community and region, and we realized there was nothing representing Jacksonville in St. Johns Town Center,” says Chef Gray, who grew up in Jacksonville. He moved back in 1999 after cooking in New York, Napa Valley, and San Diego. Case in point: Chef Gray earned his stars and stripes helping to open a Wolfgang Puck outpost in San Diego, cooking at Asylum in Beverly Hills, helming the kitchen at the CIA Greystone’s main restaurant in Napa, and serving as executive chef of Dean & Deluca in California.

Prior to opening Moxie in November 2013, Chef Gray headed the kitchen at Bistro AIX, a French-Mediterranean restaurant where he was founding partner and executive chef for 13 years and where he earned two James Beard award nominations. Chef Gray sold his interest in Bistro AIX in 2012 as planning and development of Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails took shape.

Buying the land, financing, and building Moxie Kitchen took a long three years, but it was worth it. The modern-American restaurant showcases flavors from coast to coast, with a special emphasis on Florida seafood, citrus, and other native foods.

“Stylistically, we wanted to create fun dining. There are no white tablecloths, just bare wood tables and a wide-open kitchen,” says Chef Gray of the 180-seat restaurant and its 80 additional patio seats. “We looked to take down as many barriers to good hospitality as we could, and create something warm and inviting.” The restaurant was also constructed with some attention to building a sustainable design using LED lighting where possible as well as concrete, steel, and reclaimed wood from a family friend in Maine.

Spanning two floors, a staircase connects the casual downstairs space, which is outfitted with large leather booths and banquettes, and the high-energy upstairs dining room, which features expansive windows, red furniture, communal tables, and a bar. Chef Gray came up with the name based on the slang word for “gusto” (widely used in the South) and the trademark soda from Maine, where his father grew up. But the real moxie is in the menu, where Chef Gray focuses on locally sourced ingredients.

Jacksonville’s climate is different from other parts of the Sunshine State, and the region’s sandy soil and high humidity during the summer months can actually make it a challenging growing area. However, late summer and fall are characterized by cooler, drier weather, which support increased harvests from tender, curly kale to carrots, collard greens, radishes, and peppery scarlet turnips. In addition to these local delicacies, Chef Gray also sources beautiful greens like bibb lettuce, arugula, crunchy romaine, and tender red oak from a hydroponic grower not far away.

In the winter, he brings in the best of Florida citrus, primarily from Orlando, including acidic and sweet cara cara oranges, navel oranges, blood oranges, pomelos, lemons, and limes. He pairs the lot with different grain mixtures like sorghum, farro, and quinoa blends.

He also serves citrus alongside local seafood like Atlantic triggerfish, which has a clean, fresh, white-flesh taste and a texture like bass or red snapper when it’s simply seared in a hot pan. During local flounder digs, Chef Gray snatches up some beautiful catches, and he is also known to favor pink snapper, served with an apple-Yukon potato purée and roasted and smoked mushrooms. Over the last 14 years, starting with Bistro Aix, he’s fostered close relationships with local fishermen and suppliers.


Add new comment