A Look at How Local Restaurants Are Navigating the Reawakening

Restaurants are coming back to life, albeit slowly and differently. We visit the reinvented Ardent and the new, refined and Mexican-inspired La Dama.

This year, as we navigate momentous lifestyle changes, we’re adjusting to the new relationships we have with restaurants. And that, too, is continually changing. Dining establishments are experimenting with fresh approaches to stay solvent. Carryout continues to drive business – certainly more than it did before COVID-19 – and however that evolves, we know this: Restaurants, our communities’ lifeblood, are dealing with the dual imperatives of trying to attract business and offer a safe experience. 

La Dama’s shrimp-stuffed avocado (in background), watercress-cactus leaf salad with radish and pine nuts and house-made sangria (Photo by Chris Kessler)

2020 has turned out to be the year restaurateur Peggy Magister decided to close Crazy Water, the pioneering restaurant that helped transform Walker’s Point into the dining mecca it has become over the last two decades. In its place, Magister has changed the focus to refined Mexican cuisine with La Dama Mexican Kitchen and Bar. It’s an idea she’d been considering for years as she watched the market for fine dining shift and shrink. 

Meanwhile, in its below-sidewalk-level space on the East Side’s Farwell Avenue, Ardent is retailoring its offerings. A “Lounge at Home” menu can be picked up curbside, and a prix-fixe meal is served in the private, socially distanced dining room. Both options are designed to make the diner feel catered to in a specific and intimate fashion. 

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These divergent approaches illustrate the care restaurant owners are taking – and have to take – in the age of COVID-19. As I continue to visit and critique restaurants, I’m committed to staying safe, and many restaurants are showing a high level of commitment to safety as well. In a visit to La Dama, my dining companion and I arrive masked – as the restaurant requests – and remained so at our socially distanced table on the enclosed patio, only removing them to eat. Masks are available to diners if they don’t bring their own. It’s a small thing to ask and doesn’t detract from the experience. 

Some inspiration for La Dama (which translates to “The Lady”) comes from Magister’s extensive travels to Mexico. But she gives menu credit to her head chef Emanuel Corona, who has worked with Magister for over 18 years and spent much of his life in Oaxaca, known for dishes using rich, complex, chile-infused moles (sauces). He makes the tortillas and breads in-house, showing attention to each component of a dish. His duck mole tacos with plum compote and purslane, a green with a subtly sour flavor, are wonderful (order of three, $14) – the tender, meaty duck, the deep, dark mole, and sweet fruit along with a dash of crispness from the greens. They’re cupped inside the homemade corn tortillas, which are so good – warm, light and flaky. For its fusion of sensations, I love the grilled octopus tostada with aciento paste (a pork spread), caramelized pineapple, pickled onion, arugula, mint garlic yogurt ($10). It’s sweet, creamy and peppery. Grilled avocados have been in vogue for a while. Just barely charred, this magical green fruit is stuffed with grilled shrimp and sharp horseradish cocktail sauce ($11). I could eat a couple of these easily with the house sangria – vodka and white wine with a little bubbly soda and prickly pear cactus ($10).

Ardent’s “Lounge At Home” beef meal (Photo by Chris Kessler)

Amongst the platillos (plates or entrées), the only disappointment is the bone-in, half-chicken cooked on banana leaves with guajillo and tomatillo guacamole, served with the house made tortillas ($20), because compared to everything else I’ve eaten, it’s surprisingly bland. Branzino is a mild white fish you more often see on an Italian menu, but the beauty of it is how well it’s suited to other cuisines. It’s so mellow and light. Served whole, with the skin and bones intact, the roasted fish is easy to separate from the skeleton and doesn’t need much of an accompaniment – a smidge of salsa macha, a spicy, nutty sauce that originated in Veracruz ($22). I will be here again soon, very likely eating the citrus-crusted salmon, golden beet purée and toasted corn hibiscus reduction ($20)

At Ardent, whose dining room hasn’t been open since it closed for a remodel in February, owner Justin Carlisle is easing back into the artistic, foodie-designed experience. Among the carryout offerings is a DIY burger kit, which comes with all the ingredients. You simply have to cook it at home – and I recommend you do that on a grill. This is a terrific burger made from beef from the Carlisle family farm, along with brie, onions and kasuzuke pickles (which I’d call a refined sweet-sour flavor), and a fresh Big Marty’s potato bun ($12). For $20 per person, you can order the burger prepared for you and it includes tater tots and a house-made Klondike-style ice cream bar. 

It’s pricier, but the Lounge at Home beef meal is a worthwhile splurge. Each course comes individually packaged and prepared ahead of time. The dry-aged New York strip with charred rapini are the only items that need a quick reheat (instructions are included). Particularly good are the pea soup, which marries crunchy pea shoots and fresh mint with the crème fraîche-rich cold pea soup and the tarragon-laced fava bean fricassee. For dessert, pastry chef Arielle Welch prepared a spicy parsnip cake with candied parsnip and cream cheese frosting. There is also a chicken version with confited chicken thigh and puréed potatoes, and Carlisle plans to add a fish option as well. ($90 for two diners or $180 for four).

The Eastside Royal and The Purple Buck cocktail kits (Photo by Chris Kessler)

Carlisle plans to reopen Ardent for safe, private and/or socially distanced dining in mid-August (after this issue went to press). To do this, he’s putting strict safety measures into place, such as facial coverings for guests and staff and non-contact temperature screenings on arrival. Only six diners will be allowed in the restaurant at one time, and each will be served a 10-course menu ($135 per person for food; $260 per person with beverage pairings). Between the carryout menus, a small menu of butcher shop items, such as Carlisle beef sold by the pound, and private dining, Carlisle hopes to keep the restaurant, which he opened on a shoestring budget in 2013, alive. 

Although opening La Dama wasn’t a kneejerk reaction to COVID-19’s devastating economic effects, Magister is embracing a new, very delicious journey that offers something unlike other Latin restaurants in town. I’m rooting for her, for Carlisle and for so many other independent restaurants that can only survive if we help them. 


La Dama Mexican Kitchen and Bar 

839 S. SECOND ST. | 414-645-2606 

Hours: Tues-Sat 5 p.m.-close.
Prices: Platillos $12-$45
Reservations: Recommended


Ardent 

1751 N. FARWELL AVE. | 414-897-7022

Hours: Thurs-Sat 5-8 p.m. 
Prices: Lounge at Home menu and private dining $20-$135
Reservations: Yes, and ordering through exploretock.com/ardent


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s September issue.

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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.