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Ardent Serves a One-of-a-Kind Dining Experience

Jul. 3, 2017
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ardentbymaggievaughn
Photo credit: Maggie Vaughn

It’s weird to write—or talk with my friends—about Ardent without feeling compelled to attach a ton of qualifiers. I’m not ritzy! I’m not hoity-toity! I’ll still shoot that rail whiskey with you! And so on.

Ardent

Address: 1751 N. Farwell Ave.
Phone: 414-897-7022
Price: $$$$
Website: ardentmke.com
Handicap access: Yes
CC, FB, RS
Hours: W, Th, F, Sa 6 p.m.-8:45 p.m.

Ardent’s reputation precedes itself. It’s a relatively unassuming spot—adjacent to Zaffiro’s and next-door north to owner and chef Justin Carlisle’s other thing, Red Light Ramen—and it has a sort of oh-wow ineffableness to it. Deservedly so. For the Milwaukee dining and eating experience, it’s one of a kind. And, most importantly for the kind of space Ardent cultivates, it’s not stuffy. It’s not pompous. It’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 what’s available seasonally and from local farms (meat from Carlisle’s dad’s beef farm had a couple appearances at my sitting). When you roll into Ardent, all you know is you’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 killer—see the subsequent paragraph—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 dish—which I didn’t take enough notes on ’cause I just wrote, verbatim, “wow the egg salad dish.” (Actually most of my notes were not helpful for this because they just said stuff like “clever,” “dope” and “bravura,” which is a word I have literally never used any other time in my life.)

Like most tasting-pairing menus, Ardent’s builds carefully to a climax of density, but not necessarily in complication, which I appreciated—the opening “snacks” (not amuse-bouches, for what it’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 dish—each worker will bring you out something here or there and be happy to thoroughly answer your (maybe dumb; mine were) questions about it—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 it’s beautiful; two hours later it’s over and there you are—on Farwell Ave., looking around—all the world’s problems whooshing back. But for two hours, Ardent, like some kind of magic trick, makes them all disappear.

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