By Connor Dziawura
Clever Koi has been creating inspirational Asian entrees since 2013, when the Central Phoenix location opened.
The restaurant belies its façade. Upon entry, the part-Asian restaurant, part-craft cocktail bar patrons receive a warm and inviting experience.
The bustling, open kitchen, which is adjacent to a stocked, classy craft cocktail bar, overwhelms diners’ senses with an array of mouthwatering smells as staff prepare meals. Laid-back, jazzy instrumental hip-hop sets the backdrop.
Owners Nicholas Campisano and Joshua James, who followed with a Gilbert Clever Koi in 2016, have a storied background in the food industry, but Asian food piqued their interest.
“Throughout the years we’ve always found our passion in food, beverage and hospitality, and just honed in skills and soaked in all the knowledge from each company we worked for,” Campisano says.
“We definitely gravitated toward ramen. We loved ramen houses, steamed buns and dumplings, but we also loved the culture behind it. They’re very intricate and very passionate. They have systems that they follow. Their discipline is one of a kind.”
Describing Clever Koi as having “a crafty, modern approach,” Campisano clarifies it’s not fusion, but more of an approachable, expansive take on the foods and regions they explore.
“It was definitely something that was untapped in the market,” he says. “And we wanted to challenge ourselves. It’s all about learning new things and that’s what we’ve done over the years. We wanted to bring something to the Valley that was different, definitely paying homage to everything.
“By no means are we a traditional Japanese restaurant or Chinese restaurant, but we bring a lot of that inspiration in from all over, but also other styles as well.”
The restaurant melds flavors hailing from regions like Thailand, Korea, China, Vietnam, Japan and Indochina. Clever Koi seasonally adds dishes and puts different twists on current meals. Sometimes the staff brings back classic favorites.
“We feel with that you’re going to get the highest quality, the highest flavor, the most unique things. That’s why we change every season,” he says.
Executive chef Anthony Dang inspired the menu. Employees have roundtable tastings and discussions on new offerings, Campisano says. This keeps the staff knowledgeable and collaborative.
“Some of these dishes hit close to home for him (Dang),” Campisano says. “It’s nostalgia for him. They are things he grew up with. And what’s awesome about it is he wants to share that with other people. He wants to share that with our other cooks but also have input from our other cooks.”
The restaurant’s XO noodles ($14), a modification of a previous choice, is a popular dish. It is based around yaki soba noodles and incorporates shrimp, scallops, pork belly, bean sprouts, snow peas, pickled daikon, shallots and an XO sauce. Though served in a hefty bowl, the dish itself isn’t necessarily heavy, but it does pack a slight kick in terms of heat.
“What’s awesome about this dish and why I truly believe there’s a reason why it tastes so good is because it’s very special to the creator,” Campisano says. “And I think when you put all that passion into something, everybody’s going to see it. Everybody’s going to feel it. Everybody’s going to taste it.”
Campisano feels strongly about Clever Koi’s vegetable tart ($11), under the sharing section.
“We roast red and golden beets and take a puff pastry that we make in house. We add whipped goat cheese, rosemary, and then we put this Japanese whiskey molasses glaze on top. It’s just a really cool dish,” he says. “We used to have one before. We tweaked it a little bit to be a little bit more approachable, executed properly.”
It’s all about keeping the choices fresh. But while old favorites may be sacrificed in favor of new meals, customers can branch out.
“Say a guest comes in and they love something and maybe they’re a little bummed about it that it’s off,” Campisano says. “Now we have a few new dishes that we can show them that they can fall in love with as well.
“It’s about nostalgia. Everybody feels that, but also it’s about maybe steering a little bit away from nostalgia. Because nostalgia kind of keeps you in that state. It doesn’t have you kind of branch out and venture and do more and try new things. But nostalgia always brings you back to the core of each dish.”
Clever Koi accommodates allergy and dietary restrictions, as noted on the menu. Gluten-free and vegan options are also available, as is customization.
“We want our guests to be heard,” Campisano says. “Guests who have these dietary restrictions or choose to eat in a certain way shouldn’t be narrowed down to a few restaurants or a few places they want to go. We have options, great gluten-free options, great vegan options, dishes that can be modified to be either so everybody feels good coming in and trying new things. That’s our focus and what we want to do.”
Campisano and James successful with two busy Clever Koi locations, however, they have a new venture in the works for Scottsdale. Having once worked in an Italian restaurant, they’re planning to return to those roots by launching Fellow at ASU SkySong in September.
“Those three are paying homage to what’s really important about family and great quality, simple food and enjoying each other’s company,” Campisano says. “We’ll do pastries and coffee in the morning and a full-service lunch/dinner and kind of bring everybody together for all meal periods.”
Clever Koi, 4236 N. Central Avenue, Suite 100, Phoenix, 602.222.3474; 384 N. Gilbert Road, Suite 101, Gilbert, 480.306.4237, thecleverkoi.com.
For other restaurant highlights around town, visit our Places to Eat page.