Photo © Huge Galdones
After cooking around the country at restaurants like Gramercy Tavern in the heart of New York City and West Virginia’s posh The Greenbrier resort, Justin Carlisle found his groove in his home state of Wisconsin when he opened Ardent in Milwaukee the fall of 2013.
As a true farm-to-table restaurant, he’s folded in several Dairy State accents to his east side eatery, such as beef raised on his parents’ farm in Sparta, vegetables grown by a staff gardener and whatever employees find on forage hunts around and outside the city. The menu changes seasonally to reflect what’s fresh and ripe.
“We use a lot of things from the area,” says Carlisle, adding that the beef is especially key, “to be able to monitor and see a calf from the minute it’s born.” Proving just how conscientious the sourcing is, for a possible second course, Edelweiss Creamery’s Muenster cheese from New Glarus is served with pain au lait and cultured butter, both made in-house. “We are just over 80 percent self-sustained,” he explains, noting that even the restaurant’s steak knives are made locally.
That same localized vibe extends to the interior. A lack of prominent signage from the street—and that the restaurant is a flight below— makes it feel cozy and secretive. Soft shawls hand-knit by Carlisle’s mother in hues inspired by nature are casually slung over chair-backs to make diners more comfortable. Terrariums near the kitchen and petrified moss in the windows further enhance the subterranean feel.
The restaurant is only open for dinner—with just 23 seats—and offers a 10-course tasting menu of snacks with two seatings (6 p.m. and 8 p.m.)
On a rare night off, the three-time James Beard Best Chef: Midwest semifinalist turns to comfort foods, citing without hesitation, “roasted chicken and a salad with mashed potatoes,” as a favorite. Or, “tater tots or a green-bean casserole.” Among his favorite local restaurants are Goodkind (he likes the spicy crab pasta) in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood and Bass Bay Brewhouse in Muskego (for their Friday fish fry or fried-chicken sandwich).