Milwaukee Surprise

Ardent serves some of the most progressive food in the Midwest

We never expected to find some of the most interesting food in the Midwest hiding in Milwaukee, but that's exactly what we discovered down the short flight of stairs to the non-descript basement that is the contemporary American restaurant Ardent.

"When we opened, everyone thought I was crazy," explains chef Justin Carlisle. "Milwaukee is still into the Friday night fish fry and prime rib Saturday."

Ardent was fully booked when we came in, but we managed to snag seats at the kitchen counter, where we could watch Carlisle prep in his tiny kitchen.

Carlisle likes to serve the same ingredient multiple ways in the same dish. The results are surprisingly delicious. An early sweet-and-savory course of celeriac ($12), a humble and oft-misused root, combined raw celery, celery leaves, salt-roasted celeriac and an infusion of celeriac into white chocolate. We couldn't tell if we were eating veggies or dessert, nor did we care.

Carlisle also sticks to his Wisconsin roots, sourcing products from local farms and serving elegant twists on childhood favorites. His unique take on beef tartare ($14), for instance, takes inspiration from both his grandma's cannibal sandwich (deviled eggs, raw beef, butter and onion) and a technique he learned working at Tru–whipping bone marrow into a cream and "frosting" the tartare with it. It's a meaty layer cake of fat, egg and beef.

"I look at California, and they have all the best restaurants–but we produce better products," explains Carlisle. He uses local milk, cheese, butter, meat and more. "I want to showcase what's really great in Wisconsin."