It's worth a special trip to Milwaukee just to dine at Ardent – I know many foodie friends in Chicago who do just that. Chef Justin Carlisle has received national attention since he opened Milwaukee's first tasting menu-only restaurant in the East Side neighborhood in 2014, and has been a James Beard finalist for Best Chef Midwest four times.
Ardent is one of the smallest full-service restaurants in Milwaukee, with just 20 seats and six employees. There's one seating for dinner Wednesday through Saturday along with the same 12-course menu served for lunch on Friday and Saturday. Carlisle grew up on a farm in rural Wisconsin and after years building his fine dining pedigree, he's established a style that's uniquely Midwestern, reimagining familiar flavors with joy and precision. If you think Midwestern food is boring or bland, Carlisle will blow your mind from the very first snack – a crisp bite-sized beer cheese pretzel made with Hook's 5-year aged cheddar.
Beef tartare is a signature course to look forward to – the only dish that never leaves the menu. Diced top round steak is served with a layer of whipped deviled egg and bone marrow alongside a flaky Muenster cheese croissant. Each bite is perfection, a contrast of soft, creamy egg and marrow with a lean, muscular cut of meat. Top round is often used in roasts or to make ground beef, but as tartare Carlisle highlights the bold flavor of an underappreciated cut. All the beef on the menu – shaved beef heart pastrami over white asparagus, a hearty strip steak with Yukon potatoes – comes from Carlisle's family farm in Sparta, Wisconsin. They have just 40 head of cattle and Ardent goes through an animal every other week, using every part of the cow, including making beef tallow soap as a gift for guests to take home.
When I see Carlisle again for the first time in six years, he seems calmer and more centered. He remodeled Ardent and reopened in August 2020, offering lunch service for the first time. Although Red Light Ramen and The Laughing Taco have not yet reopened, he has been selling 400 ramen kits a week at regional grocery stores and Ardent is offering multi-course menus to-go along with butcher shop provisions. Guests can pick up Carlisle wagyu beef hotdogs, steaks and ground beef, plus house cultured butter and sustainable paddlefish caviar from Montana that's cured and smoked in-house.
“Our industry was broken before this,” Carlisle says. “We needed the pandemic. We needed a chance to rethink how we structure our business.” For Carlisle, that means a renewed commitment to his team and their quality of life. All his employees have health insurance and he is working on establishing 401ks – previously unheard of in the restaurant industry.
“No more late nights,” he says. “No more doubles. It's a better life all around. We don't have to be so stressed, and we can still produce an extremely high caliber of food.” There's no doubt about that. Every course at Ardent is memorable, and unlike many fine dining chefs, Carlisle is happy to accommodate any dietary requirements with advance notice. As prominently as beef features on the menu, his vegan alternative to steak – cured and roasted eggplant with a harissa crust – is honestly just as delicious.
Pastry chef Ariel Welch whips up a series of sweet bites to conclude, including creamy rhubarb sorbet and a truly delightful lemon verbena pistachio Turkish delight. Ask for an off-menu black garlic chocolate chip cookie to take home. It might sound odd, but it's amazing.
Where To Stay
After wine and cocktail pairings at Ardent, you won't be in any shape to drive home. Saint Kate Arts Hotel is the most fun and sophisticated place to stay in Milwaukee, with the first two floors doubling as a contemporary art museum, home to immersive art experiences, multimedia art installations and performances in the Arc Theater.
Every weekday, the Saint Kate art curator hosts a chat about the hotel's collection over cocktails accompanied by live music. Guaranteed to be much more interesting than your average happy hour. The hotel is also home to Milwaukee's only champagne bar, although I was disappointed by the short and predictable list. I'd hoped to see more grower champagnes and more champagnes available by the glass.
Guestrooms are filled with playful touches – Pop Art-inspired soap that looks like our childhood favorite pink erasers, ukuleles, local Wisconsin art, colored pencils, record players and vinyl albums. Amenities to inspire your imagination and awaken your inner artist. Current gallery exhibitions include Artists Without Borders, featuring first-generation immigrants currently residing in Wisconsin exploring the relationship between art and place, and The Money $how, an artistic critique of late-stage capitalism. Saint Kate's art galleries are all free and open to the public until midnight, reminding me of 21c Hotels.
The only thing Saint Kate is missing is a spa. For that, head a few blocks away to Well Spa + Salon at the more traditional Pfister Hotel. Massages here are straightforward and sublime, with experienced therapists and well-appointed spa suites.