Ardent Serves a One-of-a-Kind Dining Experience
Itâ€™s weird to writeâ€”or talk with my friendsâ€”about Ardent without feeling compelled to attach a ton of qualifiers. Iâ€™m not ritzy! Iâ€™m not hoity-toity! Iâ€™ll still shoot that rail whiskey with you! And so on.
Address: 1751 N. Farwell Ave.
Handicap access: Yes
CC, FB, RS
Hours: W, Th, F, Sa 6 p.m.-8:45 p.m.
Ardentâ€™s reputation precedes itself. Itâ€™s a relatively unassuming spotâ€”adjacent to Zaffiroâ€™s and next-door north to owner and chef Justin Carlisleâ€™s other thing, Red Light Ramenâ€”and it has a sort of oh-wow ineffableness to it. Deservedly so. For the Milwaukee dining and eating experience, itâ€™s one of a kind. And, most importantly for the kind of space Ardent cultivates, itâ€™s not stuffy. Itâ€™s not pompous. Itâ€™s accessible, with the exception of its wow-but-only-once-in-a-while price tag, which is earned. I had a blast there, sitting at the end of the bar on my own and watching couples and groups of folks talk about dishes in the way most folks hungrily (pun intended) consider a new record or book of poems.
Ardent works like this: A tasting menu is set for each seating. What you get varies based on whatâ€™s available seasonally and from local farms (meat from Carlisleâ€™s dadâ€™s beef farm had a couple appearances at my sitting). When you roll into Ardent, all you know is youâ€™re going to get full-on tasty food. I suggest when you eat there that you go for it and choose the pairing menu in which a beverage (beer, wine or champagne in my experience) is tied with each dish. Although the food is killerâ€”see the subsequent paragraphâ€”the pairings, which heavily skewed French and were all tasty, did complement and converse with the dishes in ways that gave them an extra dimension.
Ah, but the food! The food at Ardent is so absurd. It plays around with Midwestern notions of giant portions by giving you tiny, delicious portions: Beer cheese soup in a pretzel bowl becomes a bite; egg salad becomes a two-bite dishâ€”which I didnâ€™t take enough notes on â€™cause I just wrote, verbatim, â€śwow the egg salad dish.â€ť (Actually most of my notes were not helpful for this because they just said stuff like â€śclever,â€ť â€śdopeâ€ť and â€śbravura,â€ť which is a word I have literally never used any other time in my life.)
Like most tasting-pairing menus, Ardentâ€™s builds carefully to a climax of density, but not necessarily in complication, which I appreciatedâ€”the opening â€śsnacksâ€ť (not amuse-bouches, for what itâ€™s worth) were every bit as fun and strange as the closing mignardises (OK, you got me on that one). But the staff seemed to be actually having fun serving each dishâ€”each worker will bring you out something here or there and be happy to thoroughly answer your (maybe dumb; mine were) questions about itâ€”and generally seemed to like it there. Laughter in a kitchen is always a good sign.
Ardent is one of the finest dining experiences Milwaukee has to offer; something every Milwaukeean should put on their bucket list. You go there and itâ€™s beautiful; two hours later itâ€™s over and there you areâ€”on Farwell Ave., looking aroundâ€”all the worldâ€™s problems whooshing back. But for two hours, Ardent, like some kind of magic trick, makes them all disappear.