Photo by Chris Kessler
It’s the first of December, and Justin Carlisle is stressed. He feels “blessed” to be the one calling the shots. But with a staff in place, the need to make a profit is weighing heavily on the first-time restaurant owner’s mind.
And Ardent – one room of subterranean space on Farwell Avenue and Royall Place – is breaking ground. Rare is the new restaurant that opens on its owner’s own terms, without many concessions to customers and no investors to please. But it was the only way for Carlisle.
After pulling out of his Umami Moto executive chef gig, he announced a deal to open two businesses in the old Chili Lili’s/Holiday House quarters in the Third Ward. One restaurant would have been the more exclusive, the more “Carlisle.” Opening only on weekend nights, and offering very limited seating and a multicourse tasting menu were among his plans for it. Although that business model unraveled, he regrouped with the Ardent project, set inside a previously short-lived Middle Eastern coffee bar. It’s a simple premise. Five tables and seven chairs at the bar. Linens sewn by Carlisle’s mother. A kitchen that’s not state-of-the-art but serviceable for Carlisle, Aaron Patin (the former chef at Charro and Stone Creek Coffee’s kitchen), and the other staff who cook, expedite, serve and talk shop with diners.
The restaurant’s website lists a sample menu, an accurate representation of what was available for the first two months of Ardent’s life. For example: a drum-shaped beef tartare covered with foamy, marshmallow-light bone marrow; petals of cured trout in a block-shaped landscape of crème fraîche, wisps of crouton, pickled fennel and red onion; pristine slices of beef short rib with flat-leaf spinach and feathery aerated potatoes.
Courses are a steal for the artistry and quality of the food. The raw beef – like all the beef here, from cattle raised on Carlisle’s family farm in Sparta – is $14. The game hen – a major departure from the skinny birds of my childhood dinners – is deboned, confited, stuffed, charcoaled and matched with, among other things, a sunflower seed risotto. It’s $16, four dollars less than the highest-priced item here, the beef ($20). The shaved-head chef will let you and your friend share the eight-course prix-fixe menu ($85). You can choose the courses from the sample menu, or let Carlisle do the honors. When a delivery on white china comes to the table, Carlisle gestures toward the plate and launches unabashed – but lacking hot air – into his description of it, the artist and technician fusing.
Details like complimentary first (amuse bouche) and final (a petit cadeau – e.g., handmade candy) bites, the cell phone holder and tea service suggest fine dining. But the simple wood tables sans tablecloths and the room’s unaffected mood make Ardent harder to classify. Perhaps it’s simply the process of developing its own identity. Carlisle knows that Ardent is not every Milwaukeean’s restaurant. Nor should it be. A perfect night, for him, would see 40 diners, with two full table turns.
The Ardent of late 2013 will not be the Ardent of early 2014. Carlisle tells me in a phone convo about how he envisions the next several months. His worry is the first quarter of the year. January, February and March can deep-six a restaurant. He talks about what he can do to make Ardent financially viable, but still do what he wants to do. At this writing, he was leaning toward eliminating the menu and instead running a tasting menu of chef-determined courses. The one plate that may survive the menu carnage is “Milk,” an ardent expression of Ardent. A wooden plank holds three interconnected components – a thick slice of butter, a wedge of Muenster cheese, and a tiny roll made with that butter. All are from the same cow. They’re lined up ever so precisely on the board, with the roll hidden inside a linen sleeve. A plate rooted in Wisconsin.
Diners who looked for a shaken-not-stirred beverage in the first weeks were out of luck. The small selection of wines and beers from small producers alone led the list of intoxicants. But as more of the gin-and-tonic crowd wafted into the restaurant, the staff put their palates together to roll out a small cocktail menu.
It won’t pay the winter heat bills, but another of Carlisle’s ideas could lure in a hungry (better yet, thirsty) late-night crowd. A couple of nights a week, after the kitchen has shut down dinner service at 10 p.m., they change the tone of the place. To differentiate from Ardent’s atmosphere, the place dons a more casual look, with burlap curtains and red lights – transforming it into a joint for ramen (aka, Japanese noodles). Ramen time is on Friday and Saturday nights – from 11:30 p.m. until they run out of noodles. Carlisle’s quest for success is possibly as strong as his love of ramen.
If more restaurant models were as modest as this one – ambitious and unapologetic for what it is and isn’t – Ardent’s owner thinks the local dining scene would benefit from it. This is no mogul in the making.