The Subtle Elegance of Ardent
Featuring the “best chef in the Midwest,” its food is exquisite yet reasonably priced.
Ardent (1751 North Farwell Ave.), the restaurant opened nearly a year ago by chef Justin Carlisle, is a study in limited perfection. Located just below street level in small quarters on Farwell Avenue, the atmosphere is elegant, clean and minimal, with a few tables, a metal dining counter and tile floors, all bathed in a pleasant summery light when we last dined there. The short menu, which changes frequently, consists of small plates made with local ingredients, each one carefully thought out and arranged, and each one exquisite in the clarity and intensity of its flavors. Carlisle was named Best Chef in the Midwest for 2014 by the James Beard Foundation.
The dishes are titled after their main ingredients. Milk ($5), for example, consists of an amazing bread, pain au lait, Muenster cheese and cultured butter hand churned on the premises. You might object initially to paying for what is basically bread and butter; you won’t after you try it. Pea soup ($8) is quite minty, the flavor of the fresh peas pure and concentrated. Escargot ($12) are served in the traditional manner with parsley and garlic, but are much plumper than usual, and the garlic flavor more subtle. Roast mushrooms with pickled shallots is an unlikely but wonderful combination, the flavor of the pickled shallots clear and pronounced.
There’s usually a choice of two desserts, which is enough to let you end your meal on a high note. A poached rhubarb dish ($9) with ice cream and crème anglaise was scrumptious, and maybe even better was a rich chocolate combination containing mousse and roast marshmallows ($9).
The wine list is carefully chosen and reasonable and the cocktails are decent (though not Ardent’s strong suit—I was able to order a perfectly decent martini on the rocks, but they didn’t have a proper glass to serve one straight up). And though I haven’t tried it yet, the word on the street is that the Japanese ramen ($10) served after 11pm is the best in town. In all, Ardent is a small and exquisite restaurant with food that is the equal of any restaurant in Milwaukee. The choices are limited and the portions small (but not stingy), priced so reasonably that it’s easy to order enough to be satisfied. It isn’t a place to go to tie on the feedbag, but so what? For that you can always go to Butch’s steak house.