Wayward Fox Restaurant

Wayward Fox is the restaurant that Gainesville has deserved for a long time now.

Having recently opened in the former Andaz location at 12 W. University Avenue, it is the passion project of Chef Steve Grimes of Crane Ramen. The “American Izakaya” cuisine here, essentially small plates meant to be shared amongst the table, draws from his experiences living and cooking in Jamaica, Thailand, Japan, New York City, and now Gainesville. These influences are also reflected in the murals painted throughout the dining room, and even in the choice of music. The “American Izakaya” label is borrowed from a popular type of Japanese dining that serves drinks and snacks meant to be casual, Dragonfly offers a more traditional type of Izakaya to some degree. Wayward Fox is a chef-driven spot that is anything but boring, so if you’re a fan of generic “American” restaurants that are all clones of each other serving the same things over and over, sorry I’m not sorry.

The dining room is fairly large, having about 100 seats, a bar, and even a lounge area complete with giant Jenga. Everyone loves giant Jenga, even if you’re a communist. It is counter service, so grab a menu and be prepared to take a number after paying. You can also sit down at the bar, grab a glass of Hai-Chi (Thai Tea cocktail with bourbon and lemongrass syrup) or Buzz Words (Ginger skin-washed scotch, ginger honey, lemon, Japanese whiskey, lemon, and candied ginger) to go with your choice of dishes off the menu. There is a good selection of cocktails and beers, but these two just stood out to me. While you’re there, take notice of the wall covered in cookbook pages where you are encouraged to grab a marker and write “love” in any language.

From the outside, the restaurant isn’t particular well lit or flashy having just a black awning with their name in small print. Some chefs hide behind boasts over who they rub shoulders with and vomit buzz words, while others speak softly and carry a big stick. So, its outward appearance is appropriate for its chef-owner who has always let his cooking do the talking. And let me tell you, the food is both phenomenal and unique.

Nowhere else in town would you find someone doing a Citrus Shrimp Ceviche Tostada, topped with cucumber, tomato, cilantro, avocado, pickled red onions, and baby shrimp on a crunchy perfectly toasted tortilla. No one is doing Brisket Dumplings filled with brisket, caramelized onion, and beef jus deep fried on a plate of beer cheese sauce and topped with cilantro, parmesan cheese, and a side of salsa. There’s also Mexican Kimchi, a traditional homemade kimchi seasoned with Mexican flavors, and Korean BBQ Beef French Fries made with Chipotle Korean beef, beer cheese sauce, yogurt, cilantro, fried onions, and salsa. For meat plates, there’s grilled lemongrass and fennel pork chop, grilled jerk chicken, and Korean Chipotle BBQ Skirt Steak. The former and latter both being marinated for over 48 hours before grilling.

I’m a particular fan of the “Meat One” Tossed Rice; a bowl of Jasmine rice mixed with furikake (Japanese seasoning of dried fish, sesame seeds, seaweed, and spices), fried onions, fried garlic, green onions, and frickin’ pork butter. Top it with a fried egg for optimal tasty yummies.

Even the more traditional American bar foods like Chicken Nuggets are marinated in coconut milk and thai spices, tossed with beef jus and sour sauce. The Chicken Wings are fried to a crisp and tossed in a Tapatio hot sauce, butter, and BBQ sauce combo and topped with garlic chips and mint. Or you can opt for just plain ol’ thin cut fries but with a side of hickory smoked ketchup, spicy mayo, or housemade ranch. Vegans, vegetarians, and gluten-sensitive folks do not worry. There are ample options for you on the menu as well.

Are you starting to get the picture? Everything we ordered at our table was unique, delicious, and well…just…not boring. Eating in a group setting and sharing dishes is a family-style dining so popular among Asian countries, and harkens back to the kind of meals my family would have with big groups of relatives while I was growing up. After all, what’s that quote say? “The people who give you their food, give you their heart.”

All this being said, the restaurant is not a finished product. There’s room for improvement on the service side and guest experience. Even something as simple as getting utensils and plates is somewhat confusing, as it’s off to the left of the order counter instead of being in a more intuitive location like next to the water dispenser. Menus are not available until you get to the counter, so at peak service, the line can get long as diners can’t peruse the choices until they get to the cashier. The servers, while friendly, failed to do simple things such as take away table numbers or offer to provide plates for sharing. I was also somehow served an expired can of soda, though it was quickly rectified and no one else at my table had this issue. Given the restaurant is still in its infancy, these are all correctable items that I hope to see improved relatively quickly.

And I hope they do, because with some front of the house improvements, this is a strong contender to be one of the best restaurants in town. Chef Steve has been able to put together a restaurant that tells his story and shares the food that shaped him without making it into a giant ego trip. When people cook the food that means something to them is when we get the tastiest results.

We’ve seen a number of specialty restaurants thrive over the last year. Some started as food trucks and graduated to brick & mortar, others are still food trucks but will follow suit, and more folks are looking around and willing to take a chance at bringing new options to town. It’s a testament to the fast-increasing amount of people taking an interest in good food and looking for something more. My hope is that Wayward Fox signals the beginning of the next restaurant movement in Gainesville; the kind of chef-driven restaurants that spearhead the food scene in a lot of big cities.

For now, Wayward Fox is open from 5 PM to 11 PM from Wednesdays through Sundays. If you plan on attending, I highly recommend bringing a group of friends as it’s food best enjoyed with friends. If you’re riding solo, I would recommend 3-4 items off the menu if you’re hungry. Happy Eating, you beautiful people.

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© 2020 by Ken Peng & Ken Eats, LLC. Title image courtesy of Jesse Adrian Scanlon Media.

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