Since opening Ardent in Milwaukee’s East Side neighborhood in 2013, chef Justin Carlisle has received near-universal raves from the food community, including a coveted James Beard nomination. But the hometown cook who’s honed his skills at New York’s Gramercy Tavern, Chicago’s TRU, and most recently, Milwaukee’s Umami Moto, admits that Ardent still isn’t always an easy sell to Milwaukeeans.
“They value their dollar,” Carlisle says. “Our value is different. It can be hard to communicate that, but it’s not for everybody.”
Ardent is a small operation in almost every sense of the word. The entire space sits 30 customers at six tables and seven bar seats. The portions are relatively small as well – about three plates will satisfy one customer – and the staff numbers just six. But the small scale is part of what has made Ardent a runaway success.
“I couldn’t do this restaurant at 50 seats. I would have to compromise a lot more,” Carlisle says. “If you do the specific things you're good at and isolate a smaller space, you’re going to reach people.”
For Carlisle, who grew up on a beef farm nearby, the mission of Ardent isn't just bringing elevated dining to Milwaukee, but also showcasing the culinary legacy the area already has. This means using ingredients sourced from local farms – including his family’s farm – and putting a new spin on the hearty dishes and flavors he experienced while growing up,
“I hope that we can get back to the roots of Midwestern cooking, but in a very elegant style,” he says. “I want to show that the small beef farmers [can make] great products.”
However, Carlisle is adamant that it’s great food, and not labels like “organic” or “farm-to-table” that will ultimately continue to drive the business.
“We don’t push organic and farm-to-table down people’s throats, but we’re one of the only restaurants that has its own greenhouse,” he says. “But we don’t really tell people that. That doesn’t really matter at the end of the day. At the end of the day what matters is making delicious food.”
Those seem to be the values driving Carlisle – local flavors and elevated dining – as well as the meaning behind the word “ardent,” which is featured right on the front page of the restaurant’s website:
ar•dent (är’dent) adj. 1. a. Expressing or characterized by warmth or passion, emotion, or desire. b. Displaying or characterized by strong enthusiasm or devotion; fervent; zealous; 2. Glowing; flashing; fierce; 3. Hot as fire; burning.
That is to say, Carlisle and his team seem passionate about helping to carry Milwaukee’s food banner for years to come.
Adam D’Arpino is the Restaurants Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @AdamDArpino.