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  • Olivia Lee

The Clever Koi: Adding Humble Color, Pattern and Texture to Modern Asian Cuisine

“Be humble.” The mantra of Joshua James, co-owner and bar manager of The Clever Koi. Although the food service industry has been known to consist of hot-headed hard workers, James has taken a different approach, which has allowed this modern Asian eatery to create a place for itself on the gastronomic forefront of Phoenix dining.

With small plates that include an eclectic array of dumplings, steamed buns and noodles, and hand-crafted cocktails that pay homage to the countries of Thailand, Korea, China, Vietnam and Japan, The Clever Koi welcomes guests by providing exceptional hospitality and epicurean entertainment.

All Photos by Elizabeth Marie Photography

Novice restaurant owners, James and his partner Nicholas Campisano, saw the need for a more invigorating and contemporary Asian restaurant, and wanted to bring a different arrangement of foreign flavors to guests without them having to globe trot. As a result, James and Campisano curated a polished and quite tasteful name for themselves with the devise of The Clever Koi’s unprecedented kitchen and bar.

“We wanted to do something that was nontraditional, yet something that still paid homage to the food and to the culture, and have a local approach to it, ” said James.

However, despite an elaborate vision of hospitality, and an impressive food and beverage menu, James admits that the opening product was a little too far left of center. This required the team to take a step back and rework their approach.

James tweaked the bar program by using innovative ingredients and trend-toping products, while remaining true to the idea of simplicity. This new method allowed James to experiment with local elements to create new flavor profiles without being unfavorably eclectic. After much shaking and stirring, the tried and true cocktails at The Clever Koi shine in their ability to appeal to both traditional and adventuresome sippers.

James said, “My intention was never to have someone come in here and feel stupid…a lot of what we do is very tongue and cheek, so we try to keep it as humorous as possible. We never want people coming in here and not knowing what’s going on.”

With the focus on hospitality, guests can enjoy unique drinks that have the ability to tantalize any palate. Try elevated classics like the Enabler, consisting of lemon, maple, hibiscus and sea salt for a smokey whiskey sour taste. Or Almost Bad News, a tiki style drink with rum, allspice and citrus. And License to drive, served straight up with rye, sherry, aperitif and bitters, providing notes of nuts, raisin and orange.

Although four-years strong, it may come as a surprise that despite these clever concoctions, The Clever Koi experienced immense struggle when the establishment first opened. James found himself faced with bad reviews and needing to step outside of his comfort zone behind the bar and into the business realm of restaurant ownership.

“My biggest accomplishment has been my ability to take a different approach,” said James.

Although faced with negative critiques and having to navigate unchartered occupational territory, James felt this was a period of ultimate growth. He became wiser and more adept at handling criticism, which fed his determination to create a better product and excel within service management.

James said, “Unfortunately in this business when you fail, everyone knows. When you fall short everyone knows. So you have to humble yourself and take it with stride and try to be better, and that’s what we did and that’s how we got through.”

Maintaining a modest mentality, while overcoming peaks and valleys, James and Campisano created a company that aims to inspire employees and guests alike. By tweaking their mission, The Clever Koi strives to provide first class hospitality with an original spin on traditional Asian food and drink.

James said, “We really fell short on what the overall concept was and what the vision was. It more about trying to achieve a James Beard award than it was about trying to put together a product that worked for the community.”

Placing pretentiousness aside, James reminded himself to take small tribulations in stride and to maintain calmness and mental clarity when faced with larger challenges. James recalls a piece of advice that a former mentor once said, “I guess we’ll see another day tomorrow.”

With that counsel, James continues to push The Clever Koi forward in the food and beverage industry by raising personal standards and consistently meeting them.

So what’s in the future for The Clever Koi?

“I think we would definitely want to do another [location]…The overall goal for this company is to keep progressing, keep getting better, and like I said prior to that is to return back to tradition…and constantly be working on hospitality,” said James.

With a progressive and confident, yet humble nature, James ensures that The Clever Koi evolves with simplicity and that bad Yelp reviews be taken as matter of course.

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