A taste of Arizona: The Clever Koi

The Clever Koi
$$$
4236 N Central Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85012
thecleverkoi.com

Friends have been urging me to try The Clever Koi for some time now. It always comes up in conversation about great food in Phoenix, so I had to overcome my fear of being crashed into by the light rail and get myself to midtown Phoenix. Near Central Avenue and Indian School Road, and a left turn across the light rail tracks for me, sits a stylish mid-century structure housing what would soon be the best meal I’ve had in a while.

The name of this place couldn’t be more appropriate. It is smartly decorated, and the menu is an ingenious re-invention of Asian fusion, more like Asian mashup: taking the best of everything, and creating unique and flavorful dishes. The owners were previously chefs at the Parlour Pizzeria, and though that may seem odd at first, their knowledge of dough shines through in their dumpling, noodle and dessert dishes.

There is an entirely separate menu for lunch that features a nicely priced $5 rice or noodle bowl. You should know before you go that dinner items are not available until 3 pm. I chose to wait for dinner and sat drinking iced green tea until the kitchen converted from the delicious basics to the delectably coy.

The Clever Koi has an open kitchen concept that you can sit right beside, watching the magic happen and getting ideas for what you want to order next. There is a full bar as well, featuring signature cocktails and top shelf liquor brands.

There was so much on the menu, I had to plan a couple of visits.

Goat Cheese Dumplings $8
(roasted beets, miso cashew pureé, daikon sprouts)

The understated description on the menu doesn’t come close to explaining this amazing dish. Delivered were four crisp dumplings, nicely arranged upon an island of earthy red beets, in a river of cashew pureé, sprinkled with healthy sprouts. The dumpling itself, just the dough alone, was a culinary experience. It was more like a pastry and the perfect vessel for delivering delicious goat cheese. The beets, which I tried first because I always feel that the bed of a dish like this sets the tone, would send a beet lover’s heart to the moon. My server also brought two different bottles of Sriracha sauce (red and green) that were strikingly delicious. Though the dumplings didn’t need it, it was fun to dip back and forth between the sauces. When I gushed to my server how good this was he responded, “…yeah, fried cheese, you can’t go wrong…,” an understatement again, but very true. You have got to order this.

Caponata $7
(smoked eggplant, miso gastrique, celery, peanut)

Caponata is a Sicilian eggplant dish, the addition of miso gastrique (a caramelized sweet and sour sauce with miso, I am guessing) and peanuts give it the Asian flair. I’m a sucker for smoked vegetables, especially eggplant, so I order it. Beautifully served and colorful, this small plate appetizer had wonderfully sweet, complex flavors. I was surprised to find it as firm as it was, almost chewy. I don’t know why I expected it to be tenderer, none the less; it was absolutely marvelous and completely eaten.

Bananas Foster Fritters $6
(no menu description but … five banana beignets, sugar and Chinese five-spice powder, caramel miso sauce)

Again, their knowledge of dough shows up in these tender pastries. Each beignet ball contains a chunk of banana that has been lightly fried and rolled in a mixture of sugar and five-spice blend. On their own they are delicious, but you have got to try the accompanying caramel miso sauce. It is like caramel on steroids. I even sopped up the leftover sauce with my finger once the fritters were gone.

The meat (poultry) options called to me for another visit:

Chicken and Waffles – Steamed Buns $4
(kimchi waffle, chili maple, scallion)

Did I mention my new phrase, Asian mashup? This is probably the best example of what I mean. Served in one of those taco holder things with a side of syrup, sits one of the most interesting concoctions I’ve seen in a while. Inside two golden waffle slices nests some crispy fried Asian chicken and I’m not exactly sure at first how to eat this. I have silverware, I have chopsticks, but I decide to use my hands and pick it up like a taco. Once in your hands, it can’t be set down and you don’t want to anyway. The chicken and the waffle are both good, and the syrup is a perfect complement. I struggle with dipping the “taco” into the syrup. Maybe this was meant to be a knife and fork affair, but I push on and happily conquer this original creation.

Duck Curry $14
(duck, roasted potato, pickled peppers, peanuts, cilantro)

Another understated description of a heavenly bowl of coconut milk-based red curry, velvety smooth, rich with tons of separate flavors, each taste detectable in a single spoonful. This dish is spicy! They must use a hot curry bolstered with cayenne. It’s the kind of heat though that keeps you wanting more. I have read that peppers release the same endorphins in your brain that heroin or opiates do. I’m not a doctor, but why else would you keep shoveling spicy spoonfuls into your mouth? Don’t get me wrong, this dish is absolutely delicious and perfectly prepared. Spice lovers, this is definitely for you.

The duck is delicious and I try pieces of it separately. All of the pickled peppers, which are sweet, mix well with the other veggies in the bowl. What you don’t see until you dig in, are the udon noodles buried below the broth. They are thick and delicious. This is really a meal and I had to take some of it home. To tell you the truth, I ate the leftovers later that day, didn’t even wait for them to become actual leftovers.

Light rail fear be damned. I’ll keep going back to The Clever Koi; I’m sorry I waited so long for my first visit. There is much more on the menu to try, and I’m looking forward to the adventure that is The Clever Koi.

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