By Srianthi Perera
Nick Campisano and Joshua James have not yet visited Asia, but they run a mean Asian-inspired kitchen and craft cocktail bar in Clever Koi.
“We’ve not been overseas, but we pay homage to them. Asian culture is very intricate, they’re very specific and it’s very fascinating,” Campisano said. “They are super passionate. Even their bartenders, the way they craft things, is done from the heart, and we truly appreciate that.”
Campisano, who spends his workweek in the Gilbert restaurant and is not above wiping a chair or picking up a stray napkin, seems to bring the same passion to the table that he’s trying to emulate.
“We are very passionate about food, beverage and hospitality with the crafty approach to Asian food that we do,” he said.
This is not his first endeavor in the restaurant business. The Tucson native has opened a string of New Age lounges along the California coast and also worked in leadership roles at Modern Steak, Culinary Dropout and Mondrian in Scottsdale prior to launching Clever Koi.
James, from Phoenix, oversees the Phoenix location and is known for his mastery of the classic cocktail. He’s not a newbie in the business either, and has worked with Karl Kopp at AZ/88 and The Parlor Pizzeria, among others.
In Gilbert, Clever Koi offers a menu of steamed buns, housemade dumplings, progressive noodle dishes and small plates that reflect flavors and techniques from Thailand, Korea, China, Vietnam, Japan and Indo-China. It also has a craft cocktail bar and an eclectic beer, wine and sake list.
Chefs operate in an open kitchen with a wood-fired grill and woks that are visible to guests. About 80 percent of ingredients are sourced locally.
The restaurateurs said that while the traditional Asian cuisines, such as Japanese, Thai and Korean, are represented in major metropolitan cities, it’s “untapped” in the Valley.
This led to the decision to craft and open Clever Koi, first in Phoenix four years ago, and then in Gilbert’s Heritage District a year ago.
Rather than just stick to the traditional fare from those cuisines, they made some of the dishes their own by adding different flavors. Hence, a cheeseburger has a kimchi marinade, the noodles contain a lot of onions and garlic a la Italian, and the fries, while sprinkled with salt and pepper, also gets a dash of Togarashi, a fiery Japanese condiment.
At Clever Koi, any non-spicy dish may be made spicy and vice-versa.
Because the food can have various flavors and non-traditional ingredients, the staff is trained on the details.
“A lot of people come in and this is very new to them. The training that we do for staff is very important,” Campisano said.
Staff can chat about the dishes and are sensitive to allergies and eating specifications.
“They are helping the guests grasp what we’re doing, have a great experience and come back. What’s super important to us is the overall experience,” Campisano said. “We’re trying to make that happen for every guest.”
Recently, Clever Koi began offering a full menu all day (closed Mondays), an all-day happy hour from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and introduced new dishes, including Korean-style short rib and zesty, chopped salad with yuzu vinaigrette.
The increased hours are a result of getting a good response from the community.
The decision to open in Gilbert was a good one, Campisano said.
“We have a lot of friends and coworkers who live here and have their families down here. There was a nice gentrification happening down here,” he said. “We feel the vibe down here.”
Peering into the crystal ball, the restaurateur sees more locations of Clever Koi in the Valley.
“We’re still trying to create that synergy and continuity between both the restaurants,” Campisano said. “We would love to grow; that’s our goal.”