When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out -- and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Restaurant: The Clever Koi Location: 4236 North Central Avenue Open: Just over a week Eats: Asian fusion Price: $11 to $30 per person
To understand The Clever Koi, the new midtown restaurant from former Parlor Pizzeria chefs Jared Porter and Joseph Absolor along with co-owners Joshua James and Nicholas Campisano (who also did time at the pizzeria), you should order the Kung Pao Pastrami ($12).
Inspired by a dish of the same name at the San Francisco and New York City restaurant Mission Chinese, it's deliciously inauthentic, paying tribute to its Asian roots as well as taking wild liberties with it. The lamb pastrami is supremely smoky, its flavor mixing with things like confit potatoes, peanuts, sausage, red peppers, and slivers of snow peas for what more or less amounts to a Chinese-American comfort food head trip.
And so it goes with the rest of Clever Koi's menu, a tight selection of reinvented Asian snacks, rice and noodle dishes, and steamed buns and dumplings filled with things like pickled pineapple, Peking duck, and kimchi.
There is an octopus summer roll ($10) -- loosely (too loosely) wrapped in rice paper with peanuts and cilantro -- that lacks the imaginative spirit most of the other dishes have. But if you have criticisms about the Chinese long beans ($8) interspersed with crisp duck tongue and kicked up with an garlicky XO sauce aioli, I will happily take this ridiculously addictive dish off your hands, go into another room, and lock the door behind me.
Of the noodles dishes, the Massaman udon noodles ($13) might be the best way to go. The noodles are pristine -- thick, chewy, and nearly glowing with a clingy orange coat of curry -- and topped with chunks of succulent roasted duck, fingerling potatoes, peanuts, pickled peppers, and crisp bits of cilantro for a dish so packed with various flavors and textures that you never know what your next bite will be.
Located in a remodeled building at 4236 North Central Avenue (next to George & Dragon), Clever Koi appears more than ready to take on its young, urban crowd of women in stylish shoes and men with interesting facial hair. The sleek modern room, put together with décor accents like wood slats, wicker lights, and patterned wallpaper, gives you the sense you might be paying more for a meal here than you actually will be. There is a wall of windows on one side, a patio in the front, and the bar, next to the open kitchen, feels like the perfect place to sip a craft cocktail, imported beer, or sake while watching the delicious havoc happen nearby.
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Because Clever Koi opened around the Thanksgiving holiday, business had been slow but was now picking up, my amiable server said. I have no doubts that once the secret's out, this fish will be swimming with hungry guests.
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