Located on Indian School and Central Avenue, Clever Koi was named Arizona’s Best Ramen House by USA Today, 2017’s Best Happy Hour by the Phoenix New Times, and 2017’s Best Cocktail Bar in Central Phoenix by Phoenix Magazine.
I stopped in at Clever Koi on a quiet Saturday afternoon and sat down with co-owner Joshua James. James, an Arizona native, has been in the restaurant business for 20 years, ever since he started working at the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak when he was 15. From there, he moved on to work at Mastro’s and AZ 88 before becoming Bar Manager at The Parlor. It was at The Parlor that he met his partner, Nick Campisano, and the duo opened Clever Koi in 2013. They opened a second location in Gilbert in 2016.
What inspired you and Nick to open a modern Asian restaurant and cocktail bar?
“At the time, these kind of concepts didn’t exist in Phoenix. When you get to hub cities like New York, Chicago, LA, San Francisco, food cities, these concepts are readily available, but five years ago there were no modern Asian ramen houses. So we tried to spin our interpretation of Asian cuisine with influences of regional Italian and sort of try to blend them together without saying the word ‘fusion’.”
How would you describe the food you serve at Clever Koi?
“Overall, our food is simple, it’s bold, it’s flavorful. When we started we wanted to do a very left-of-center approach to Asian cuisine and have it be non-traditional in the same sense. The focus of the food over the past few years has really been trying to get it back to center, try to get it back to an identity where we have non-traditional aspects of the restaurant but still incorporate traditional Asian foods and recipes into our kitchen. Now, our food bears a lot more respect to the regions of the cuisine and the culture where it came from.”
With how much work you put into the menu, I’m sure you love all of the food. But is there an item you end up eating more than others?
“My favorite thing on the menu are the Tuna Chips. They’re awesome. Rice paper chips with crudo tuna, wasabi guacamole and bonita aioli. They’re great and they’re light and I never get tired of them. I love those things.”
Is there something you think sets Clever Koi apart from other restaurants?
“If there is one constant that I hear about Clever Koi it’s how great the service is, and how accommodating and how knowledgeable everyone is. That’s what we really focus on. That’s what we really excel at in this business and that’s what, knock on wood, keeps our doors open everyday. Our service staff is our direct connection from our values to our guests. They take ownership as if it’s their house and they treat them as such when they come in.”
What are looking for in the people you hire?
“Definitely personality driven, rather than work experience driven. Some of the best people I’ve ever worked with in this business are completely green when they start and end up being really amazing people. We try to hire people who have the same passions about the business as we do. Everybody who works here is passionate about something in their lives. We need to hire people who share our same values, and that’s a big part of it.”
You mentioned passion. What is it that makes you so passionate about this restaurant?
“I guess the easiest way to sum it up without over-diluting it would be that I wanted to build a company that I would want to work for. I wanted to build a company that I would 100% always want to be there. A place where I would feel respected, feel that I had a voice. That’s really what Clever Koi is. That’s why we retain people as long as we do. Our employees don’t necessarily work for us, we work with our employees. We’re all coworkers. It’s not like Nick and I are up on some pedestal.”
Any plans for the future?
“We’re actually opening up two new concepts in the next few months. Across the Pond, which is a sushi and cocktail bar that’s going to be right across the street. That one opens in the middle of September. Then in the middle of October we’re opening up Fellows Osteria, which is a sort of casual Italian eatery on Scottsdale Road and McDowell in SkySong. The Osteria is something we’ve wanted to do for a long time. When I was at The Parlor, I wanted to take that and shrink it and make it smaller and more intimate. It’s kind of an all day joint, very simple concept, 16 item menu, pizza, pasta, salad.”
Thoughts of tuna chips and wasabi guacamole had been swirling in the back of mind. After the interview, I thanked James for his time, took a seat at the bar, put in an order, and got a cocktail–the Up in Smoke–while I waited. The flavors were remarkably cohesive. An understated taste of Banknote Scotch bookended by lemon on the front and lavender honey on the back, all topped with a creamy foam of Laphroaig and oolong. And people… all I can say is get the tuna chips.
Photos by Will McClelland