There's nothing fishy about this slick Modern Asian midtown eatery – and more the shame.
It's hard to put your finger on Clever Koi. At face value, this buzzy neo-Asian hotspot feels exciting and of-the-moment. Spoon a little bit deeper and, while energetic and sincere, Clever Koi feels surprisingly held-back. Less than what it could be.
Flanking one side of a rebuilt furniture store in midtown Phoenix, bisected by a long outdoor arcade of floor-to-ceiling windows and dark, rusted metals, Clever Koi communicates a cool self-awareness. Chef Jared Porter, who most recently steered the kitchen at Parlor Pizzeria, headlines a young team of culinary, beverage and front-of-house pros, many of them fellow Parlor expats.
Cocktails don't hold back at Clever Koi. Lead mixologist Joshua James hits a refreshing note with his Swizzle In & Swagger Out ($8), a spiced mix of rhum agricole (pure sugar cane rum), aged dark rum, Bénédictine liqueur, house orgeat (a nutty, floral syrup), fresh orange, coconut milk and bitters. It's icy and refreshing. For something silky and stirred, try the Enabler ($9), a smoky-sweet elixir of hickory-infused whiskey, grilled lemon, lapsang smoked tea maple syrup and bitters.
On the starters menu, the charred wood-grilled octopus ($8.50) is a stand-out, with perfectly chewy-tender strips of octopus stacked atop a crispy rice cake in a puddle of a delicate hot and sour broth. The hulking chicken-fried turkey wing ($8) is a bit cumbersome to enjoy as a shared appetizer, and lacks savoriness underfoot a sweet and flat black sesame syrup. Steamed buns ($4 each) are large and dense, and arrive with varied filling options. Skip the "kung fu pastrami" buns – inspired by the cult-favorite staple at San Francisco's Mission Chinese Food – which require a great deal of chew and effort to enjoy. Order the Peking duck buns in lieu, with house-cured bacon, mizuna and charred plum jam. The "Pig Face" dumplings are the best of the dumpling offerings ($8 per order of four), filled with pork jowl meat, a spicy but funk-less kimchi and pickled peppers.
Mains are served in the guise of rice and noodle bowls. The popular kimchi fried rice ($10.50), best with the duck, is mild but satisfying. Though the kimchi lacks the customary murky kick, a few dabs of the house hot sauce – think a thinner, sharper Sriracha – compensates nicely. The noodle menu is dominated by ramen and udon. I was hoping for a "wow" moment from the seafood hot pot ($13.50), but instead found an uncertain left turn. The hearty udon noodles and perfectly tender hunks of catfish, shrimp and delicate but flavorful octopus cake have no chance to express their subtle charms in an overwhelmingly sweet broth. Ramen performs strongest with the roasted pork ($13), a shallow bowl of pork and beef broth buried under bright pickled mustard greens, a very easy egg and shiitake mushrooms.
Less edgy than its packaging might suggest, with an approachable but sometimes too-orthodox mash-up of modern Asian cuisine, Clever Koi is still looking for its breakout moment. One imagines that Porter has a few up his sleeve.
Cuisine: Modern Asian
Contact: 4236 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-222-3474, thecleverkoi.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-12 a.m. Friday-Saturday
Highlights: Wood-grilled octopus ($8.50); Peking duck buns ($4 each); kimchi fried rice ($10.50); roasted pork ramen ($13)
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