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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Small Plates and Small Parties at Ardent

East Side hideaway with a fresh, understated menu

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Ardent opened quietly on Milwaukee’s East Side in the latter part of 2013. It is a discreet setting, a bit isolated in an area better known for carryout pizza and Thai fare. You enter by walking down a half-flight of steps to a frosted-glass door. Inside is a small place with just a handful of tables and a few seats at the counter separating the kitchen from the dining area. The décor is minimalist with a soft gray color scheme. The wine, cocktail and beer list matches the décor—lean and spare, although perfectly adequate. 

The menu, too, is understated with simple labels for items such as “Milk,” “Escargot,” “Beef” and “Chicken.” But do not be misled by the simplicity; the food menu is the prime reason for being here. Be sure to make a reservation, although it is possible to find a spare seat earlier in the week. Also, keep the dining party small; intimacy is much of the charm. Solo diners and couples should consider sitting at the counter to watch the kitchen magicians at work. Every movement is in perfect coordination.

After a few months in business Ardent still has the hottest tables in town. Restaurants of this quality open so rarely in this area even though the last few years have seen much improvement in quality at local startups. And the prices? Considering the quality and the almost unheard of staff-to-customer ratio, the restaurant is ultimately a bargain. Six items for two will run less than $100. Many local restaurants will charge more and will, in the end, be lacking.

The menu is constantly in flux—the “tasting menu” varies daily. An amuse-bouche will arrive first. The very experienced servers will give a brief description of each course’s ingredients. Stinging nettles? They work. Freshness is everything and Chef/Owner Justin Carlisle even has a family source for his beef, a farm near Sparta, Wis. When ordering keep in mind that everything is in a small plates format. A couple should try five or six items, though ultimately you will want to sample them all. Then go for the chef’s sampling menu. This menu will provide variety.

The chilled pea soup ($8) is summery. The intense broth is added at the last moment and poured over whole peas. A bit of buttermilk has full flavor and concentrated tarragon adds the right amount of zip. Roasted mushrooms ($10) also disappear in a few bites with thin slivers of leek, pickled shallot and two varieties of mushroom. These are just warm-up acts for something bigger, such as the beef tartare ($14) arriving in the shape of a cake and topped with what appears to be frosting. The top layers are bone marrow foam over a sheet of devilled egg mousse. The raw beef is minced and it has a bit of texture. Grass-fed beef will always be a bit chewier than Kobe. But the flavors border on amazing. This is a dish you will want to share—it’s that rich and intense. It makes for a fine peak in the middle of a meal.

The course titled “Beef” ($26) is flavorful slices of steak cooked medium rare. Do not even think of requesting it well done! Humble ingredients like turnip and turnip greens are handled deftly. “Chicken” ($16) is the true surprise on the current menu. Chicken is so often dull. This presentation is just a few boneless pieces of meat with simple additions like thin slices of asparagus and bits of fresh baby dill. The flavors are in perfect coordination. Do not rush at all. Every bite of this delicious fare should be savored. Those on a budget should stop in late on a Friday or Saturday for the ramen special.


 

Ardent

1751 N. Farwell Ave.

414-897-7022

$$$-$$$$

Handicapped access: a few steps