The hype surrounding Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails has been building for several months. Ever since Chef Tom Gray (previously of Bisto Aix fame) announced his new restaurant we wanted to give it a try. The restaurant, located at St. Johns Town Center, was the combined effort of Gray and his wife Sarah. Building began in April, 2013 and culminated in a 7,066-square-foot restaurant according to Gary T. Mills. Gray reportedly narrowed the menu from a "few hundred ideas" down to its current form. Unfortunately, Moxie did not live up to the hype during our recent visit. With that being said, we are always extremely excited to see a new restaurant open in Jacksonville and with Chef Gray's experience, we are confident Moxie will improve.
Moxie has several key problems that should be fixable. Unfortunately, the biggest of those problems is also the most important aspect of a quality restaurant: the food. We have enjoyed Chef Tom Gray's food at Bistro Aix for many years, so we assumed it was a given that the food would be amazing. Imagine our surprise when we picked up the one-page menu and saw Corn Nuts, Cheddar Cheese Curds, White Bread with Pimento Cheese on top, and Chicken-n-Waffles. Now, there's nothing wrong with a little comfort food, but isn't this supposed to be at least a semi-fine dining restaurant? Regardless, we figured there must be something special about these unusual menu items and we decided to dive in with the Pimento Cheese ($8) off the "Toasts" section of the menu. The Pimento Cheese toast was a heavy dish consisting of four portions of soggy bread, lots of chunky pimento cheese and tiny potato chips. We found this appetizer unappetizing and overly filling.
Next, we planned to order a cheese plate, but we were a little thrown off about how the cheeses are listed. The first three items are meat and the last three are cheese. It would have helped to have a more detailed description of the flavors and types of cheese. Instead, we saw the Deviled Eggs go by and decided to try those. When they arrived, we found that the filling of the eggs was the same for all four and that it was pureed to the point where it was almost liquid. The consistency was off-putting and they were somewhat bland despite being topped with bacon, crab, pickles, and some sort of seasoning on fourth one. We think the deviled eggs could be improved by thickening the egg filling and adding some extra spices.
The bland tastes continued with the Rainbow Trout ($21), which was fresh but had almost no flavor. It seemed like the "smoked almost salsa" consisted of a few almonds sprinkled on top of the fish. Also, the fish was accompanied by sunchoke, which was almost tasteless, had the grayish tint and appearance of baby food, and was pureed to the point of liquidity (much like the deviled egg filling previous mentioned). On a side note, we almost felt like we had to order something safe because the main dishes were so limited. When you have options like Tofu + Red Rice (sorry to all you tofu lovers) the menu tends to narrow itself down. We always like to try the steak at any given restaurant, but at $38 for a 9 oz. filet, we simply weren't sold on the dish. For instance, at Bistro Aix, the Stilton Bleu Cheese filet offers a memorable take on the standard filet and it is well complimented with their delicious au graton potatoes. The "Filet Mignon/9oz." description on Moxie's menu just didn't sell us on ordering the $38 item.
Lastly, we tried the Seared Scallops ($24) and they turned out to be the highlight of the meal. These were served with cheese grits, lobster sauce, and green onion salad and the result was a well-balanced and flavorful meal. This is the type of dish that we expect from Chef Tom Gray and we hope he adds more like this in the future.
The first thing you should know about the ambiance at Moxie, especially on the second floor where we ate, is that it is very loud. The cement floors and openness of the restaurant seem to accentuate the noise. This is certainly not a subdued, intimate, quiet date-night type of restaurant. Some of the noise and layout may be by design, but overall, we were not wild about the ambiance. Also, we found the patio-furnitue-style chairs flimsy and uncomfortable. In fact, at one point during dinner, a patron actually fell over in his chair and created a bit of a scene.
In sum, Moxie seems more suited for large groups to go and have a drink. Our best description of the second floor is: it felt like an modern, indoor, casual, All-American barbeque joint. The problem is: Moxie charges fine-dining prices and bills itself as somewhat of an upscale restaurant. The bottom line: don't go here expecting Bistro Aix, because there are very few similarities.
As with many new restaurants, Moxie's service is not quite up to speed. However, we are confident that they are putting forth the effort and that it will get to peak performance soon. Our party arrived a few minutes early for our reservation and one of the three hostesses walked us to upstairs to the table. Our waitress arrived, took our orders, and was fairly knowledgeable when recommending a few items. She did seem slightly frazzled, possibly by the large parties nearby, but overall her service was good. The food service did drag a bit at the end and we had to ask another waitress for the bill. That was a mistake, because she brought one bill and then ran another bill with our credit card. She had to cancel that charge and then put our order back on the card.
In sum, we feel that Moxie must improve its food in order to become a staple of Jacksonville dining like Bistro Aix. It seems that Moxie has not yet found its identity as a restaurant. The menu is so eclectic that it is a bit of a hodgepodge instead of the creative and cohesive offering we expected. We have a strong desire to see local restaurants like Moxie succeed in Jacksonville and it certainly has the potential to succeed. We plan to continue reporting on Moxie as it grows and we hope that Chef Gray will go back to his roots and produce more Bistro Aix-level items in the future.
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