On the locals cut-through thoroughfare connecting Beach and Atlantic boulevards sits one of Northeast Florida’s newest farm-to-table restaurants. At the end of a strip that includes a pizza joint and a Japanese place, the exterior of 904 Restaurant doesn’t scream trendy. But, even among the ever-growing movement toward fresh, local, and real, 904 Restaurant (the numerals represent the region’s telephone area code, kids) off Penman in Jax Beach stands out as the place to enjoy delicious, upscale fare at an affordable price.
904’s Chef Matt Gilligan, originally from Massachusetts, experienced a big change in climate and culture when he decided to migrate south. After studying at Endicott College for Culinary Arts and cooking his way around the Northeast, Gilligan felt that he could make a deeper connection with his creations – he just needed space to express himself.
“Fresh” is the buzzword at 904, and the items on display throughout the place are evidence of local sourcing. Wooden tables sport microgreens, and a hydroponic tower that grows herbs and potential veggies. Along the edge of the booths are canned jellies and relishes, as well as Barkin’ Biscuits dog treats from Jacksonville’s Berry Good Farms. Diners only need to lean in to read the labels on 904’s canned goods, all of which are available to buy.
Farm-to-table restaurants rely on seasonality, so while some menu items are consistent, others come and go according to availability. 904 is transparent about this, and has a smaller menu on each table that lists the daily changes, if any. The restaurant’s larger menu explains the importance of sustainable sourcing and eating. 904 stays within the area code whenever possible; one of the restaurant’s biggest farm suppliers is GyoGreens, located in on Canal Boulevard in Palm Valley.
As always, I was excited to eat, particularly at a place that supports local farms. The Surf & Turf Corn Dogs ($10) were highly recommended but, not being a corn dog connoisseur (is there such a person?), I ordered a plate with slight reservations. Fortunately, 904’s corn dogs are not suspicious meat blends wrapped in cornmeal, but local Mayport shrimp fried in a minced ham, beer, and hot sauce batter. Gone were the ketchup and mustard; a flavorful jam adorned the dog.
For my entrée, I ordered South Georgia Chicken ($14). Tasso ham gravy, a perfect puddle over pan-seared chicken, carried most of the robust flavor. The gravy spilled into red bliss mashed potatoes that were truly blissful. Spicy collards were the local greens of the evening.
My dining companion ordered the shrimp and grits ($16), which I was more than willing to sample. The grits were thick and doughy, with a sweetness that softened Aardwolf’s Blonde Beer broth, making a strong case that craft beer goes with just about anything. Sautéed Mayport shrimp, cherry tomatoes, and more Tasso ham gave texture to the dish – the whole thing was rich, creamy, and downright delicious.
Choosing a dessert was tough, so we told our server to surprise us. She chose the kitchen’s much-favored bread pudding ($6). Just half a bite in, I knew why the 904 staff loved it. Warm bread pudding shaped like a loaf of bread, with a custard-like consistency, was stuffed with white and dark chocolate, plus cranberries, which gave it a tasty chewiness much better than the standard raisins most restaurants include. A dollop of vanilla ice cream dribbled over the sides was gobbled before it had time to melt.