By Gwen Ashley Walters | NOVEMBER 17, 2013 | NEWS & NIBBLES


According to legend, 100 years had elapsed and no koi ever made it past the treacherous waterfall at the end of a long, arduous upstream journey. Most koi turned around without even trying. A few hundred kept swimming ahead, over and over again, to no avail. No one knows why, but one fateful day, a single koi finally leaped high enough to clear the formidable waterfall. As a reward for his dedication and perseverance, the gods turned the victorious koi into a golden dragon who spent the rest of eternity soaring high above earth, tucked safely away in the heavens.

Back on earth, four friends, who met while working in a modern Italian restaurant in Phoenix, started their own determined journey upstream a year ago. On November 25 (pending final inspections), these focused thirty-somethings will reach the waterfall they’ve been metaphorically swimming toward the past 12 months.


Photo courtesy of Clever Koi. (L-R) Joshua James, Jared Porter, Nicholas Campisano, Joe Absolor

Chefs Jared Porter and Joe Absolor, General Manager Nick Campisano, and Beverage Director Joshua James are set to open one of the most anticipated new restaurants in Phoenix this year: Clever Koi, a modern Asian-American tavern.

Conveniently located on the Metro Light Rail just north of Indian School Road on Central Avenue, Clever Koi once housed a furniture store. Construction on the infill development project began more than four months ago with the splitting of the old building into two distinct spaces. A covered breezeway separates the two buildings; Clever Koi to the south and a proposed salon and wine bar to the north.


Photo courtesy of Clever Koi

All four partners took an active role in the construction, wielding hammers, drills and welding torches (above), and the occasional rock hauling for the landscaped front patio (below). They partnered with nearly a dozen local craftsmen, including Bang Bang Designs, who, among other things, salvaged wood beams from the inside demolition and repurposed them into a long, rustic bench on the front patio.


Photo courtesy of Clever Koi. (L-R) Joe Absolor, Nicholas Campisano

Are these first time restaurateurs nervous? You bet, but they are also electrified by the opportunity to “bring something different” to the dining scene.  Clever Koi is billed as a casual, modern Asian restaurant, yet not a single one of them is Asian. That doesn’t phase them because they aren’t trying to duplicate “authentic” Asian cuisine.

“Jared and I traveled a lot over the past few years to Seattle, Chicago and San Francisco,” says Absolor. “We started [eating in] Italian restaurants but found ourselves gravitating to the Asian stuff.”

They concluded there was nothing in Phoenix like what they were eating in these food-centric cities. That both thrilled — and scared — them as they formulated their future restaurant.

Porter says, “We’ve been trying to figure out if there is a desire for this [type of] food. We love it, but will it transfer from those food cities to here?”

That is the $64,000 question. Is Phoenix ready to embrace what the top food cities have been slinging for the past decade?

Come back later and we’ll share more details from our interview with the four partners, including what’s on the menu and a surprise the partners didn’t count on that put the opening date in jeopardy.

Clever Koi
4236 N. Central Ave., Phoenix

By Annie Lemon | NOVEMBER 11, 2012 | LEMON'S LAW

Editor’s note: Annie Lemon returns with an observation about restaurant bread service and of course, a new Lemon’s Law

Seems these days, woman cannot live by bread alone. And, no, it’s not because I am shunning carbs.

It’s because so much of it makes me feel like an extra in Les Miserables.

I remember a time when bread was a pillowy promise of what would come next. A chance for the kitchen to tempt you with warm just-from-the-oven focaccia, cornbread, lavosh or brioche, often paired with a tasty spread or sweet, softened — and salted — butter.

I couldn’t keep my paws off the stuff and I would call dibs for a particularly luscious naan or fluffy biscuit. With fondness, I recall being ever so slightly full before the entrée, having indulged in one slice too many.

But all too often these days, I tuck into a bread basket only to withdraw a wizened, tasteless puck.  Or I encounter the kind of cold, texture-less roll served at 30,000 feet on transatlantic flight. And you’ve seen where most of those Styrofoam-wrapped rolls end up.

In too many restaurants, bread is deposited on the table without acknowledgement, a doughy afterthought. Sometimes, bread doesn’t appear as a precursor to the meal, but is instead MIA throughout the meal, never to appear.  A few times, I have been charged a buck or two for bread, an unsavory occurrence that I discovered only after the bill was presented.

On rare occasions, I have even bitten into day-old, stale bread.  Spit or swallow?

Bread may be a humble food, but it can also be deeply satisfying, which is why it’s been dubbed the “staff of life” for 30,000 years. Leavened or not, I want to swoon over flour and water brought to delicious life by human hands.  Poppy seeds are optional.

Lemon’s Law: 

If I fall for your bread, it’s likely I’ll fall for everything else you serve me.

Where have you had good bread service lately?



Annie Lemon is a pseudonym for a newly transplanted, nationally published food writer who lived most recently in a large East Coast city with a diverse food scene. She’s not sour, just hungry.

By Annie Lemon | AUGUST 26, 2012 | LEMON'S LAW

Editor’s note: Annie Lemon returns with a new Lemon’s Law – restaurant pet peeves. You may not agree with all of these, but we’d be surprised if you haven’t experienced a few of these minor transgressions when dining out.  Did Ms. Lemon miss any of your pet peeves?

There are innumerable small nuisances that can mar a night at your favorite restaurant. These are mine.

1.  Forced valet parking: Surrendering your vehicle in tight quarters is one thing; in a yawning parking lot it is unnecessary.

2.  Inane hostess banter: If I am standing alone and you ask me if I want a table for two, when I am clearly dining solo, it makes me question your hospitality skills.

3.  Rogue reservations: I do not wish “to wait in the bar;” that’s why I made a reservation. I’d like my table as promised.

4.  Dirty menus: Eeww. If you have dirty menus, I wonder if your kitchen is sub-par or if your employees wash their hands.

5.  Needless introductions: “Hi, I’m Bubbles, and I’m going to be your server tonight.” Please don’t ask me to remember your name. If it’s that important, wear a name tag.

6.  Tongue piercings: Darling, I can’t understand you with that metal in your mouth.

7.  Bad lighting: Sitting under a pendant with an exposed bulb is akin to an interrogation. If it’s so dark I can’t read the menu, I feel old—and cranky.

8.  Loud music: I want hear what my dining companion is saying. Thumping beats belong in a nightclub.

9.  “Good choice”: Don’t tell me I made a “good choice.” You don’t mean it and I don’t believe you.

10. Empty glasses: How about keeping my water/tea/soda glass full? I shouldn’t have to flag you down for a refill.

11. Plate swiping: Please don’t remove my plate if my guest is still eating. It’s rude. You get a pass if I’ve moved my plate to the edge of the table and you then ask: “May I take your plate?”

12. Room for dessert: No one saves room for dessert; so don’t ask “did you save room for dessert?” Just bring the dessert menu and describe one we can’t refuse.


Lemon’s Law: 

The fewer of these trespasses you commit, the happier your patrons will be. 


What’s your biggest restaurant pet peeve?




Annie Lemon is a pseudonym for a newly transplanted, nationally published food writer who lived most recently in a large East Coast city with a diverse food scene. She’s not sour, just hungry.

By Annie Lemon | JULY 15, 2012 | LEMON'S LAW

Editor’s note: Annie Lemon returns with a new Lemon’s Law about restaurant “facilities.” 

When Nature calls, it is my goal to take care of business quickly, gracefully and without drama.

So it’s unclear to me why some restaurateurs are complicating things in the restroom arena.

I have learned to deal with cramped bathrooms. You know, the kind where more than two patrons are wedged like proverbial sardines into an itty-bitty space or the door doesn’t swing clear of the sink.

I can tolerate less than spotless restrooms, with an aggravatingly empty toilet paper roll that forces me to beg for tissue from an unsuspecting stranger one stall down, or requires me to crush an insect while seated on porcelain.

I grit my teeth when the bathroom smells of aggressive potpourri or cheap candles or a gag-inducing, industrial strength cleaner.

Or confronts me with the simply ugly, as in tacky poster art or peeling wallpaper.

I long ago accepted the presence of graffiti and advertising in some bathrooms, occasionally finding it momentarily entertaining.

I can even deal with the restroom that isn’t technically in the restaurant, but rather is a shared space in an office building, perhaps around the corner or up a flight of stairs.

Unisex pissoirs seem to be the rage in trendy or space-challenged restaurants. Once I got over the shock of men emerging from coyly signed doors, I came to appreciate the egalitarian efficiency. I’m a whiz when it comes to whizzing, so being able to join the guys versus wait for primping gals puts me back at the table in no time flat.

But what of the bathroom that is actually off-limits?

The one that is technically on site, but barred from actual customer usage.

I’m speaking of a small but sit-down restaurant whose toilets are inaccessibly and possibly illegally placed.

The one where the staff shrugs and says, “It’s against the health code for you to walk through the kitchen to get to it.” The one where staffers haven’t a clue where the nearest public restroom is located.


Am I meant to hold it?

If this isn’t illegal, isn’t it at the minimum … discourteous?

Trust me, if I knew my bladder would be held hostage before I sat down, I would have gotten up and left for more urination-friendly premises.

Lemon’s Law:  

I require a kitty box of some sort if you expect me to wine and dine at your establishment.



Annie Lemon is a pseudonym for a newly transplanted, nationally published food writer who lived most recently in a large East Coast city with a diverse food scene. She’s not sour, just hungry.

By Annie Lemon | MAY 21, 2012 | LEMON'S LAW

Editor’s note: Annie Lemon returns with an opinion (not surprising) on predictable restaurant menu items. Let’s see if you can name a few yourself, even before you read her column…

Call it the Dirty Dozen. Not the list of pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables, but the other Dirty Dozen.

I know you’ve experienced it, too: open the menu at too many restaurants across any town, and you see the same dozen or so appetizers, entrees and desserts.

Yawn, it’s all there: the fried calamari, the Chinese chicken salad, the grilled salmon with rice and grilled asparagus, the penne and sausage, the crème brûlée, the death-by-chocolate cake.

I’m talking about the same tired mash-up of innocuous dishes that has appeared on menus from Taipei to Tallahassee, Madrid to Miami, Chicago to Chandler, Sao Paulo to Scottsdale since 1987.

Is there some secret society of chefs conspiring to bore our taste buds in this redundant fashion?

And it’s not that those aren’t delicious (albeit safe) dining options. It’s just that they seem so… predictable. That’s a roster of dishes I can and do make myself.

When I eat out—especially at chef-owned restaurants (let’s leave the Big Box places to their cookie-cutter menus), I am seeking the creative. I want to be wowed with pea shoot salad or monkfish served with teff. For dessert, I crave fig crostada or passion fruit flan.

If you are going to offer salmon, give me the good stuff: wild-caught Copper River with one offbeat ingredient, something to make the dish startling and memorable.

I want to be challenged by ingredients that are seasonal and unfamiliar, even difficult to handle.

I want to be surprised and delighted by what is presented. I applaud restaurateurs that are pushing culinary boundaries, rather than caving to culinary laziness.

Yeah, I know that diners can be finicky and timid. But I expect better of cutting-edge, creative chefs. Because there’s nothing worse than being bored by the same old, same old.

Lemon’s Law:

If I can order without reading the menu, it’s time to rewrite it.


Annie Lemon is a pseudonym for a newly transplanted, nationally published food writer who lived most recently in a large East Coast city with a diverse food scene. She’s not sour, just hungry.

By Annie Lemon | APRIL 15, 2012 | LEMON'S LAW

Editor’s note: Annie Lemon returns with thoughts on a dining dilemma we’ve all experienced a time or two. What do you do when you love the place more than the food?

My heart has been broken a time or two. But never more so than when I love a restaurant more than the food.

I’m sure it’s happened to you, too.

Compare it to a date. The guy is cute and intelligent; he works “on paper.” But the chemistry just isn’t there.

So it is with some restaurants. The décor is great. The service is spot-on. The prices don’t break the bank. The reviews are positive. The chef is charming. But the food, well…it’s just so-so.

You just don’t connect with what’s on the plate.

So, as in dating, you try again. And again. Each time hoping the outcome will be different, that you’ll be dazzled by the kitchen’s culinary prowess.

It’s awkward to take friends and family to such a place, never knowing if you are going to get a good dish or a mediocre one. I mean, who wants to be an apologist for a restaurant?

To extend the dating metaphor, it’s like saying “He’s nice…enough, but not a sparkling conversationalist.”

Yet it’s undeniably disappointing when the chow just doesn’t deliver. In fact, it’s a loss akin to the grief you feel when you break it off with the not-quite-right-guy who should otherwise be a match.

In the culinary world, as in romance, you gotta move on.

Lemon’s Law:

When it comes to restaurants, trust your instincts, regardless of what others say.



Annie Lemon is a pseudonym for a newly transplanted, nationally published food writer who lived most recently in a large East Coast city with a diverse food scene. She’s not sour, just hungry.

By Annie Lemon | MARCH 17, 2012 | LEMON'S LAW

Editor’s note: Annie Lemon is back with a new Lemon’s Law — on a touchy topic. Should a chef “fire” a customer? What do you think?

In my experience, chefs do not cook for the glamour or the money (as if!), but because they like to eat and they like to feed others. In that spirit, most willingly accommodate a guest’s reasonable demands.

But complain enough and you might find yourself without a seat at their table.

Restaurateurs routinely deal with a level of negativity  – from their staff, their vendors, the media and especially from their customers. Mostly, they shrug it off and return to the business of serving food.

But when a diner’s bad behavior continually crosses the line over a period of time, even the most good-natured chef may boot you from their establishment.

And why shouldn’t they? An über demanding customer pulls focus from other diners, upsetting a restaurant’s rhythm.

Still, the decision to stop feeding someone doesn’t come easily.

One vexed chef recently turned to social media to air complaints and solicit insight about how to handle an impossible-to-please patron.

Validation was quick to come from followers who sided with the popular chef.

One fan suggested that a finicky diner was an abusive bully who needed to be schooled. Another encouraged the chef to give the cranky eater a chance to address her conduct.  Several suggested poisoning—tongue in cheek, I hope. One recommended the chef direct the diner to another establishment that might be better equipped to handle culinary-related tantrums. Another suggested the chef needed to eradicate bad karma by dismissing the diner. A few folks cited possible mental illness on the part of the patron.  One wise observer suggested that people “fire” themselves.

But all agreed: chefs have every right — and a responsibility to their staff and other patrons — to fire a customer who’s torturing them.

Few folks relish confrontation. But the chef in question did, indeed, fire the customer. Naturally, the customer was in denial about her tortuous deeds.

In the real world, the customer isn’t always right, no matter how many times that mantra is repeated.

Lemon’s Law:

Everyone has a breaking point. Transgress a chef’s boundaries frequently enough and you may find yourself kicked to the curb.


Annie Lemon is a pseudonym for a newly transplanted, nationally published food writer who lived most recently in a large East Coast city with a diverse food scene. She’s not sour, just hungry.

By Annie Lemon | MARCH 06, 2012 | LEMON'S LAW

Editor’s note: On Sunday, we introduced you to Annie Lemon, a new columnist for Pen & Fork. Here is the first installment of Lemon’s Law, a column about restaurant dining. Today, Annie tackles the ticklish subject of what to do when you’re served a dish that doesn’t deliver. 

Dine out enough and it happens.

The dish you ordered arrives cold. Or it’s undercooked—or overcooked. Maybe it’s missing a key ingredient as described on the menu. It may be over-seasoned, or conversely, devoid of flavor.

Whatever the reason, you’re disappointed. Now comes the decision: do you send it back or not?

With few exceptions (say I’m at a business lunch with someone I don’t know or I’m trying to make a theater show time), I usually send my plate back.

I’m not one to settle. Or suffer in silence.

When I send back a plate, I do it politely, but firmly. I state what the issue is, with enough detail that should the waiter choose to share the feedback, it might be helpful to the kitchen staff.

In my experience, 98% of the time, the server is apologetic and eager to rectify the situation. He or she wants to know where the plate fell short and what sort of solution will satisfy me: a heavier hand with seasoning? Another minute of cooking time? Or a new dish altogether?

The server, sometimes the general manager or even the chef, may get involved in problem resolution, thanking you for the feedback. In my mind, this is positive problem resolution. Most restaurants redeem themselves when given the opportunity.

But a lot of my friends don’t return dishes that disappoint. Why?

They claim to be afraid of the waiter. Specifically, they’re afraid that the kitchen staff may take retaliatory (read: unsanitary) action behind closed doors.

Sounds paranoid to me.

Yes, we’ve all heard the urban legend about the waiter who spits in food or we’ve seen a movie depicting a chef who drops an entrée on the floor and plates it. This is not standard operating procedure.

I’ve got friends in the trade and they say that the kitchen staff takes patrons comments seriously. Or sometimes, if the complaint is left of field, shrugs them off. But the bottom line is that everyone wants to improve in a competitive market. Sending back food is a part of business. And the business is to have satisfied customers.

Some folks fear confrontation—in any form. But I believe you do other diners a service when you speak up and give a restaurant a chance to make it right.

Unless you behave badly, you should fear no server.

Lemon’s Law:

If your dish is a miss, send it back — politely.



Annie Lemon is a pseudonym for a newly transplanted, nationally published food writer who lived most recently in a large East Coast city with a diverse food scene. She’s not sour, just hungry.



Top photo © David Jones
Creative Commons License

By Gwen Ashley Walters | MARCH 04, 2012 | LEMON'S LAW

Meet Annie Lemon, a new columnist for Pen & Fork.

Annie Lemon is a pen name for a nationally published food and travel writer who moved to the Phoenix area from the East Coast almost a year ago. She has written about food, wine, restaurants, hotels, and resorts for nearly 20 years. Her assignments took her all over the country and across the globe. She has eaten in some of the finest restaurants and, invariably, in some of the worst.

Annie is smart, savvy and highly opinionated. We have lively, engaging discussions — sometimes debates — about the state of the food scene in Phoenix (and elsewhere).

She moved to Phoenix to pursue a totally different career path outside of the food and hospitality realm. Naturally, I was curious; did she miss writing about food and restaurants?

She hesitated, but said “Yes, I do.” That’s when I asked her if she’d write a column for Pen & Fork, touching on some of the topics we discuss.

I don’t always agree with her point of view, but I always enjoy discussing restaurants, dishes, service and other food-related issues with her — so much so that I asked her to express her thoughts here on Pen & Fork. I hope they spark a conversation — with you. I have no doubt that you have strong opinions, too.

Annie will explore a current topic about the dining scene (it could be related specifically to Phoenix or relevant to dining in any city), as you’ll see reading her columns in the coming months.

Annie sometimes writes with a touch of snark, but there is always a genuine point to her stories, which she has dubbed Lemon’s Law, hence the name of her new column.

She wants you to know that she’s not sour — just hungry. Hungry for good food, good service, and hungry to start a dialog with you.

Her first column will run Tuesday, March 6. Come back to see what subject she tackles first.


By Gwen Ashley Walters | FEBRUARY 19, 2012 | RESTAURANT JOURNAL

In 1993, I dined at Aqua in San Francisco, a restaurant headed by a 20-something, Egyptian-born, American-bred chef named Michael Mina. To me, it was revolutionary.

It was the first time I ate a piece of fish that wasn’t caught by my mother and subsequently fried. I don’t remember what type of fish it was, but I remember it was buttery, delicate and visually stunning. And I remember being mesmerized by the look and feel of Aqua — a sparkling Poseidon wonderland.

Before that exalted dinner, I was in the early stage of a fateful affair with food, the result of marrying into a family whose womenfolk were phenomenal Southern home cooks. The Aqua experience was another piece of a puzzle I was subconsciously putting together — revealing a map that would lead me in whole new direction. Less than two years later, I left the corporate world and moved across the country to attend culinary school.

Fast forward to the summer of 2008, when I received an assignment from my editor at PHOENIX magazine to review a new steakhouse at The Scottsdale Princess resort called Bourbon Steak — a Michael Mina restaurant. There was plenty of scandalous buzz surrounding the opening of Bourbon Steak, most notably a $175 Japanese A5 Kobe strip steak on the menu. I blew my generous budget before the end of my second visit, but I went back one more time on my own dime before I wrote the review to dive deeper into the estimable menu. (Yes, I did eat that conspicuous steak, and loved every bite.)

Mina recently celebrated 20 years as a successful chef and restaurateur during a tribute dinner in his eponymous San Francisco restaurant, Michael Mina — the former home of Aqua, where he began his meteoric rise.

Instead of kicking back and enjoying the spoils of celebrity chef fame, Mina is doing what he knows best: he is opening his 20th restaurant, a new concept called Pabu, a Japanese izakaya at the Baltimore Four Seasons, in collaboration with his friend, Chef Ken Tominaga, owner of Hana Japanese in Santa Rosa.

Mina was in Scottsdale last week to visit his team and help introduce a few new seasonal dishes. I caught up with him after he’d spent the day writing the new menu, tasting the new dishes and generally cheer-leading his team, headed by Executive Chef Daniel Patino.

Mina and Patino courtesy of Bourbon Steak

Sitting outside, he comments on one of the reasons he looks forward to coming to town: the weather.

“It’s so calm, so still — there’s no wind,” he says. “Where we are, you don’t have many nights where you can sit out after work and relax.” He doesn’t even mind the hot Arizona summers, a welcome change of pace from his usually chilly base in the Bay Area.

I tell him about trying the infamous $175 steak, and he laughs. I ask if the economy drove it off the menu. The steak did generate buzz, he says, but no, it wasn’t the economy. Japan stopped exporting their Kobe beef to the U.S. It’s just as well, Mina says, citing the sensibilities that came with the economic crash in late 2008, plus the increasing quality of the more reasonably priced American Wagyu.

“Anyone who tells you the economy doesn’t impact high end restaurants? Well, that’s not the case. Only a few restaurants are that bullet proof,” he says.

Bourbon Steak in Scottsdale has weathered the recent rough waters by building a loyal, local clientele. Relying on resort guests, Mina says, can only take a restaurant so far. He believes the reason the restaurant has not only survived, but thrived, is because they work hard to appeal to locals through seasonal menu changes and attention to detail, especially focusing on the guest experience via exceptional service.

Mina’s Recipe for Success

With 19 — almost 20 — restaurants in 10 different cities, Mina has plenty to keep track of, including more than 1,300 employees. How does he do it?

“Well, I was very fortunate. I’ve had two opportunities to do this, first with Aqua. When I spun off [to form the Mina Group], I had the chance to start over, and I made a commitment to building an infrastructure before building a restaurant. I’ve had a lot of good people who worked with me for many years. We’ve grown up together, really, and that team became the core of my company,” he says.

Part of Mina’s infrastructure is a website developed for just the staff, both in the kitchen and the front of the house. Mina is also committed to constant training and education. The website, which took five years to create, contains thousands of recipes and videos.

Chef Matthew Taylor of Phoenix-based Restaurant noca, who was Executive Sous Chef at the Las Vegas Michael Mina restaurant at the Bellagio and the Nobhill Tavern at the MGM Grand for two years before taking over at noca last fall, says “Mina surrounds himself with great people and he’s not ego-driven — at all.”

Taylor also says that at any given moment, Mina can tell you exactly what’s going on in each restaurant — from what is on the menu to the financial forecasts. Taylor helped create content for the staff website, and says there’s nothing else like it.

“It’s really cool,” Taylor says. “There are recipes for every dish and videos for each dish — videos showing how to cook the dish, videos on how to plate it, and in some cases, how to serve it.”

While the rest of us can’t access the private staff database, we can get a glimpse of Mina’s cooking philosophy on the public website through a series of short cooking videos demonstrating his mantra of “acidity, sweetness, spice and richness.”

“What’s really fun is when you get into things that combine these [attributes], like pineapple or green apple, with both acid and sweetness,” he says.

Some of Mina’s favorite ingredients? They all fit into one of his four cornerstones of balanced cooking. He adores citrus and Banyuls, an aged French red wine vinegar (acid); and radishes, ginger and chiles (heat); and coconut cream and avocado (richness).

Exchange of Knowledge

Mina says he was lucky. “I was center stage of a major restaurant at a young age. That doesn’t happen very often. I got to learn from watching great people who came to work for me and I had a very open mind. I still do. Now when I want to learn something, I learn from my chefs. It’s an exchange of knowledge and it’s great.”

Twenty years later, Mina is still drawn to the same thing that led him to cooking in the first place: a desire to understand the craft of cooking.

Almost as many years later, so am I, thanks in part to Mina.

The Mina Group

Bourbon Steak
The Scottsdale Fairmont Princess Resort
7575 E. Princess Drive, Scottsdale


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