The colorful fish known as koi is just a few steps removed from ordinary gray carp. Centuries of careful breeding, blending both Asian and European varieties, has resulted in the vibrant animals stocked in so many garden ponds and aquarium tanks today. Likewise, cultivation of traits from multiple east Asian cuisines, along with a few European and American influences felt especially in its cocktail program, has been the consistent theme at Clever Koi, an Asian fusion restaurant at the north end of Midtown Phoenix, since its inception nearly a decade ago.
The restaurant occupies part of a remodeled mid-century building which also houses a sushi and cocktail place under the same ownership. The Indian School / Central light rail station is just a block to the south, and bikes can be locked up at a long railing-style rack facing Central Avenue. The entrance is found in a breezeway that leads from the sidewalk back to the various tenants. Tables are available indoors and on a patio facing Central, but for those who like to watch cooks in action, some of the best seats are at a counter facing the open kitchen.
The partners who run Clever Koi were originally with the Parlor, a restaurant best known for pizza and pasta, so they’ve followed a slightly different approach with a pan-Asian restaurant. Nevertheless, there are commonalities in terms of the use of starches. Noodles such as ramen and soba replace Italian pastas, and dumplings take the place of pizza crust as a vessel for proteins and vegetables. The substantive differences between the chef’s old and new cuisines are in the sauces, vinegars, herbs, and spices used to add myriad layers of flavor to each dish.
Dumplings and steamed buns are good candidates to pass around the table as the meal begins. The Clever Koi’s menu changes periodically, but the “Pig Face” dumplings have been a presence throughout the restaurant’s entire existence. These pair pork with spicy, pickled notes of kimchi and the restaurant’s own sriracha sauce. That condiment, offered in both red and green varieties, is also available for take-home purchase. Buns, offered individually or as a mix-and-match trio, include fillings of cauliflower, fried chicken, pork belly, and soft shell crab.
Korean fried mushrooms are seemingly simpler than dumplings or buns but no less substantial. They’re lightly breaded, cooked just until crisp, and then served in a gochujang sauce dappled with sesame seeds. Kung pao vegetables are a bit of a departure from classic American Chinese presentations with sesame seeds instead of peanuts and sauce as spicy as it is sweet. Krazy fries are topped with pork belly, scallions, sesame seeds, and hoisin and tonkatsu sauces. Calamari fries, as their name suggests, are fashioned with rings of squid rather than potatoes.
Entrees at the Clever Koi are generally meals-in-a-bowl. Ramen choices are all based on a chicken paitan base, with each bowl benefiting from additional tares or seasonings to create distinctive tastes. The pork ramen adds tonkotsu and pork belly while the spicy kimchi ramen is enriched with chicken thigh and given an intense level of heat via a shoyu tare. The miso chicken ramen is exactly as it sounds, the vegan ramen is prepared with a lemongrass stock. All of the bowls are colorful presentations with the addition of vegetables and egg in most cases.
A cold sesame noodle dish offers a summery approach with toppings of corn, cucumber, and pickled carrots among the vegetables in the bowl. Additional noodle dishes use yakisoba as their foundational starch. One labeled as “chow mein” combines its Chinese name with Japanese noodles and a variety of vegetables with the possibility to add meat or tofu as a protein source. The XO noodles combine shrimp, scallops, and pork belly while the pad Thai is a competent take on the familiar favorite from just about every Thai restaurant in town.
A few rice dishes incorporate different traditions from east Asia. A Vietnamese-inspired rendition of shaking beef was satisfying but probably would have worked better with slightly larger cubes of meat to allow the searing usually associated with this dish. Szechuan catfish delivers the expected tingly heat with a generous assortment of vegetables in the bowl. A departure from the bowl-based entrees is a chicken katsu sandwich, made with breaded thigh rather than the more customary breast and served with a choice of either fries or a Thai-influenced side salad.
For dessert, an enduring item on the menu is a serving of banana fritters fried like beignets on the outside with a yielding interior and a salted caramel sauce for dipping. In addition, there are rotating varieties of sorbets such as blood orange or raspberry. Clever Koi’s beverage selection has an emphasis on cocktails with both a large selection of classics like a colorfully mixed Mai Tai accentuated with strata of light and dark rums and originals such as a Lemongrass Swizzle or a Long Thailand Iced Tea (pun intended) with tea, coconut,.a spice mix, and multiple spirits.
The bar also serves wine, sake, and beer. The tap handles will vary, but recent featured brews have been a Dragoon IPA and a Japanese style rice lager from Harland in San Diego. When they are no longer purposefully bred, koi fish revert to ordinary gray carp within a few generations. Clever Koi seems to be avoiding that fate after nearly a decade in operation. Even with the recent addition of a second location in Gilbert and a counter service ramen shop in Scottsdale, the original Midtown koi seems poised to stay both colorful and clever for a while.
4236 N. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85012