By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Nov 08, 2023 at 11:03 AM

When Ardent, 1751 N. Farwell Ave., opens for dinner service on Wednesday, Nov. 8, it will do so with myriad changes in effect.

That includes a brand new tasting room and experience for its guests, an expanded footprint and a more diversified concept for the restaurant overall. 

But it's not the first time Ardent has surprised and delighted guests with something new.  One could even say that, in many ways, the new Ardent experience is one that’s been a decade in the making.

A ten year evolution

October marked 10 years since Ardent opened to the public in the artfully hidden garden level space that once housed the Sphinx Coffee Shop. The 20-seat restaurant came out of the gate with a splash, introducing Milwaukee to a concept which would evolve into a tasting menu only eatery and attract accolades on both local and national levels.

Ardent in 2013
Ardent in 2013 (Photo: Ardent)

But fine dining plates that paid homage to Wisconsin and its agricultural bounty wasn’t the only trick in the Ardent book. Within months, the restaurant diversified with the launch of its wildly popular late-night Red Light Ramen pop-ups, which became an overnight sensation, drawing block-long lines and press various publications, including this memorable recap from Fooditer.

Just three years later, the concept turned brick and mortar, cementing Milwaukee’s love for the time-honored Japanese noodle bowls. But – like so many concepts, which felt the pressures of higher costs, changed dining habits and other post-pandemic stressors – the ramen shop served up its final bowl in July.

From the outside, the shuttered shop looked like yet another pandemic fatality. But Chef and Owner Justin Carlisle and General Manager Russell Tinsley began to envision the space as a vehicle for growth, a means of adapting to a changing market and an impetus for improving the overall Ardent experience. 

“The more we talked, the more we realized that we shared an improved vision for this space,” notes Carlisle. “And that it was a way for us to give guests a tasting menu experience that’s even more elegant and more focused on hospitality.”

The new tasting room

The shift will be a fairly dramatic one for regulars, who will now enter the dining room using the entryway door on the left.  But, once inside they’ll find the new Ardent tasting room to be cozy, but refined. 

Ardent Tasting Room 2023
Ardent Tasting Room 2023 (Photo: Russ Tinsley)

Wooden flooring and a raw-edged service bar warm up the space, which is otherwise composed of stark white walls, black track lighting and modern abstract works in subdued tones created by local artist Timothy (“Timo”) Meyerrin on the walls. 

Even more, guests will find four dining tables dressed in white tablecloths (yes, tablecloths) offering seating for groups of two to four diners.

“That’s what happens when you get older,” says Carlisle with a chuckle, acknowledging that the switch to using table linens marks a dramatic shift from the bare tables that have become a trend in fine dining restaurants over the past decade.

New tables with table linens
New tables at Ardent with table linens (Photo: Russ Tinsley)

“You don’t find many places using tablecloths these days,” he adds in a more serious tone, “But it feels fresh to us and fits with our vision for the tasting room experience.”

Not only are tables covered, but they’re slightly larger. Each one is also situated to provide a view of the open kitchen which – during the evening hours – is set off by warm natural light from glass block windows and the glow of heat lamps. 

It’s an effect that Sous Chef Vanessa Rose, whose career has included work at venues like Odd Duck and Amilinda, describes as an almost stage-like scene, a focal point that directs the attention of diners onto the process of their food being created. And it’s an element that Tinsley hopes will contribute to a more immersive dining experience overall.

“We’ve really taken a look at the entire experience,” he says, “To ensure that it really offers a value for our customers. That includes everything from a keen focus on hospitality to reconfiguring the menu and adjusting courses so that we can offer a relaxed service that doesn’t need three hours to execute.”

Ardent’s tasting room is accepting reservations Wednesday through Saturday with seatings at 6 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and seatings at 5 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. on Saturday. If demand warrants, the restaurant hopes to add an 8:15 p.m. seating on Fridays as well.  The 10-course tasting menu is $150 with optional pairings for +$125.  Reservations can be made online.

Something fun is coming

But that’s not the end of the changes. Beginning the weekend of Nov. 17th, the original Ardent dining room (which connects to the new tasting room via the restaurant's back hallway) will also reopen with a brand new menu and more casual, “come as you are” vibe.

“We have so many guests that we love seeing, but that we only see a few times a year,” says Tinsley.  “But we’d love to see them more often. So we hope this space will allow for them to visit us on a more regular basis.”

The space itself was reimagined in Spring of 2020 with the help of THREE SIXTY, giving the dining room and bar a warm vibe and adding an area with a more lounge-like feel. It's actually the perfect space for the reimagined concept, which will cater to walk-in diners who'd like the option to stop in for casual drinks, an appetizer or two, or a full-blown dinner.

Ardent in 2021
Ardent in 2021 (Photo: Ardent)

The menu, which Carlisle says is filled with “really nice things that we love and want to eat ourselves,” will showcase Ardent standards like beef tartare with deviled egg mousse and whipped bone marrow; along with snacks like hamachi crudo; and housemade focaccia with stracciatella and truffles.  

Casual offerings will include an Ardent burger with toppings like nutritional yeasted onions and miso pickles and a Wagyu hot dog with Nueske’s bacon, celeriac-truffle relish and shaved foie gras. Guests can also expect pasta dishes like ricotta gnocchi with matsutake (pine mushrooms) and chives, along with a roasted half chicken with seasonal accompaniments. 

Pricing is expected to fall in the $10-$30 per item range with a full bar offering cocktails as well as an expanded wine list with offerings by the glass or bottle. 

“We want to be able to welcome people to stop in for a pre-theater glass of wine if they’d like,” says Carlisle. “Or come by for a salad and roasted chicken on a Tuesday night.”

Tinsley says a few tables will be kept aside for reservations, but the space will cater primarily to walk-ins.

The Ardent bar and restaurant is expected to debut next weekend for its inaugural dinner service. Beginning the week of Thanksgiving, hours will be expanded to include dinner service Tuesday through Saturday.

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.