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Ardent's Justin Carlisle Elevates Local Milwaukee Flavors

Ardent's Justin Carlisle Elevates Local Milwaukee Flavors

Since opening Ardent in Milwaukee’s East Side neighborhood in 2013, chef Justin Carlisle has received near-universal raves from the food community, including a coveted James Beard nomination. But the hometown cook who’s honed his skills at New York’s Gramercy Tavern, Chicago’s TRU, and most recently, Milwaukee’s Umami Moto, admits that Ardent still isn’t always an easy sell to Milwaukeeans.

“They value their dollar,” Carlisle says. “Our value is different. It can be hard to communicate that, but it’s not for everybody.”

Ardent is a small operation in almost every sense of the word. The entire space sits 30 customers at six tables and seven bar seats. The portions are relatively small as well – about three plates will satisfy one customer – and the staff numbers just six. But the small scale is part of what has made Ardent a runaway success.

“I couldn’t do this restaurant at 50 seats. I would have to compromise a lot more,” Carlisle says. “If you do the specific things you're good at and isolate a smaller space, you’re going to reach people.”

For Carlisle, who grew up on a beef farm nearby, the mission of Ardent isn't just bringing elevated dining to Milwaukee, but also showcasing the culinary legacy the area already has. This means using ingredients sourced from local farms – including his family’s farm – and putting a new spin on the hearty dishes and flavors he experienced while growing up,

“I hope that we can get back to the roots of Midwestern cooking, but in a very elegant style,” he says. “I want to show that the small beef farmers [can make] great products.”

However, Carlisle is adamant that it’s great food, and not labels like “organic” or “farm-to-table” that will ultimately continue to drive the business.

“We don’t push organic and farm-to-table down people’s throats, but we’re one of the only restaurants that has its own greenhouse,” he says. “But we don’t really tell people that. That doesn’t really matter at the end of the day. At the end of the day what matters is making delicious food.”

Those seem to be the values driving Carlisle – local flavors and elevated dining – as well as the meaning behind the word “ardent,” which is featured right on the front page of the restaurant’s website:

ar•dent (är’dent) adj. 1. a. Expressing or characterized by warmth or passion, emotion, or desire. b. Displaying or characterized by strong enthusiasm or devotion; fervent; zealous; 2. Glowing; flashing; fierce; 3. Hot as fire; burning.

That is to say, Carlisle and his team seem passionate about helping to carry Milwaukee’s food banner for years to come.

Adam D’Arpino is the Restaurants Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @AdamDArpino.

Where to Eat and Drink in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Put Milwaukee, Wisconsin on your travel bucket list. Trust me, or rather trust former Top Chef and recent Milwaukee transplant Heather Terhune.

“I was this total big city snob, I still kinda am, but Milwaukee is so exciting,” Terhune said, admitting she did a double-take when Kimpton Hotels asked her to move from Chicago to Wisconsin to open and run the restaurant Tre Rivali in the company’s new hotel, the Journeyman. “It’s an untapped resource, it’s really growing in a rapid way,” Terhune said of the city.

Tre Rivali Executive Chef Heather Terhune • Photo courtesy of Tre Rivali.

The city on Lake Michigan has a friendly, laid-back midwestern atmosphere, but that doesn’t mean it’s boring. In the summer and early fall it explodes with color as the flowers and trees bloom, and people when the city hosts one of the world’s biggest music festivals. But even during non-festival times Milwaukee is full of things to do, see and eat and drink.

At Tre Rivali, Milwaukee’s only Mediterranean restaurant, Terhune is constantly introducing people to new cuisines and trying out new techniques in the kitchen.

“I’m excited to push the envelope,” Terhune said.

With so many farms nearby, Terhune’s menu is very seasonal. When we spoke she was adding things such as Gulf shrimp and crayfish to the menus and excited about focusing more on vegetables.

Here, Terhune shares her favorite places to eat and drink in Milwaukee, including at Tre Rivali.

Olive oil cake • Photo courtesy of Tre Rivali

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.

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.

Beyond Brats: What to Eat in Milwaukee

Find the best spots for custard, brunch, beer and more in Wisconsin's biggest city.

Photo By: Kevin J. Miyazaki

Photo By: Front Room Photography

The Original Farm-to-Table Scene

Forget about its brats-and-beer image: Milwaukee&rsquos dining scene has overcome its cheesy past. Because Wisconsin is second only to California in its number of organic farms, there&rsquos an abundance of cheeses, fresh greens and root vegetables for restaurant menus. But lest you think Milwaukee&rsquos all about cozy cafes, the state&rsquos largest city&rsquos dining scene dips into ethnic fare &mdash such as Szechuan and German &mdash as well as fine-dining (with seven James Beard Foundation Award-winning and &ndashnominated chefs and counting). Quite a few chefs cut their chops across Europe, in New York City or Chicago, and on the West Coast before returning to the Dairy State, showing true allegiance to the city&rsquos evolving culinary scene. Here&rsquos where to book a table.

Tasting Menu: Sanford

New Restaurant: DanDan

Custard: Kopp’s

If you haven&rsquot licked a scoop of frozen custard, some might say you&rsquore missing out on the Midwest&rsquos most-delicious sweet. Kopp&rsquos has three locations (in Glendale, Greenfield and Brookfield), each with old-school flair (think white-paper hats for the workers, and stainless-steel counters). Founded by Elsa Kopp in 1950, the business is now managed by her son Karl. Pro tip: Check out the Flavor Forecast on Kopp&rsquos website, should you be deciding which day to visit. Flavors are often inspired by restaurant menus, including creative combinations like Tiramisu and Maple Syrup & Pancakes.

Farm-to-Fork Fare: Braise

Power Lunch: Lake Park Bistro

Tucked into the Frederick Law Olmstead-designed Lake Park with a wall of windows overlooking Lake Michigan, the aptly named Lake Park Bistro is the ideal spot for a respite. Channeling France, the lunch menu features bistro classics, including moules marinieres and a croque monsieur or madame, and classic French finales, including cheese plates and chocolate cake. This is the kind of place where you linger over French options from the wine list, including non-vintage Champagne or Brut Rosé from Alsace? James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef Adam Siegel oversees the menu as its executive chef.

Iconic Dish: Fish Fry at Drink Wisconsinbly

Hot Spot: Odd Duck

For the first couple of years after Odd Duck&rsquos opening in Bay View, reservations were as hard to snag as Green Bay Packers tickets. Things have since slowed down, though the small-plates and farm-to-table-focused eatery is still wildly popular. With the menu divided into Vegetable and Animal sections, along with Snacks, Cheese and Charcuterie selections, there&rsquos a huge focus on local sourcing. Dishes are inspired by the globe, including a recent one: Sri Lankan Beet Curry with kale, coconut, pickled lime and basmati rice. Flemish Seafood Waterzooi merges sour beer with fish (mussels, cod, shrimp and Dungeness crab).

Cheap Eat: Vanguard

You expect a low-cost hot dog to taste like, well, a hot dog, right? That&rsquos where Bay View&rsquos Vanguard is different &mdash and better. Customers order a wide mix of artisan sausages and dogs (mostly less than $7) at the counter and then dine communally either on the patio or inside, just steps from the kitchen. Specialty dogs include Hungarian sausage, jerk chicken, and the vegan Soy Meets World. Five varieties of poutine round out the meal. Vanguard is also known for its creative mixology try The Cher Bear (with rosewater essence, vodka and violet liqueur) or the day&rsquos &ldquowild card&rdquo cocktail.

Cocktail Bar: Bryant's Cocktail Lounge

In lieu of a printed menu, servers pepper customers at this throwback bar with questions on their cravings to nail the perfect order for each. Dating by to the early 1940s, and under new ownership since 2008, Bryant&rsquos has earned acclaim and award nominations for its 400-drink-strong library of cocktails. Sips with a retro bent might include Pink Squirrel (reportedly invented by original owner Bryant Sharp) or an Old Fashioned (Wisconsin&rsquos unofficial cocktail). Sit on a vinyl stool at the curved bar or in a booth, and don&rsquot leave without peeking at the second-floor Velvet Lounge upstairs (named for the fabric of its wallpaper).

Chocolatier: Indulgence Chocolatiers

Lake Views: Harbor House

Food Hall: Milwaukee Public Market

Brunch: Café Calatrava

Mirroring the art collection upstairs at the Milwaukee Art Museum &mdash not to mention Santiago Calatrava&rsquos soaring white wings &mdash Café Calatrava chef Jason Gorman whips up decadent and social media-worthy concoctions that could woo anyone out of bed on a cold Sunday morning. The café is on the museum&rsquos lower level, with windows overlooking Lake Michigan. Dishes include brioche French toast, bagel-inspired flatbread with smoked salmon and capers, and a brisket burger on a pretzel bun. Don&rsquot leave without sticking a fork into Birramisu, Gorman&rsquos reimagined tiramisu.

Late-Night Eats: Red-Light Ramen

Perhaps in search of his own place to enjoy late-night fuel, James Beard Foundation Award-nominated chef Justin Carlisle opened the after-hours dining concept Red Light Ramen adjacent to his flagship fine-dining restaurant, Ardent. Popular with restaurant-industry workers, including Ardent&rsquos employees, steaming bowls of ramen noodles are served until 1 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Although the menu is limited &mdash two ramens are offered, plus Seafood Tins and upscale snacks &mdash so is the seating. There are only two or three tables for two, plus a handful of bar stools, which makes this a hidden little secret in the city&rsquos dining scene. Sake pairings are on the menu, too, as well as a mix of Asian and Milwaukee beers.

Steakhouse: Rare Steakhouse

Burger: Stack’d

Anchoring the North Side of Walker&rsquos Point, Stack&rsquod, which serves lunch and dinner inside the former Kramer Foundry, is a no-fuss burger joint with a commitment to local sourcing. This includes grass-fed beef and nine other protein options for the burger patties. There are also plenty of vegan and vegetarian options, such as the house-made black-bean burger or chickpea-walnut burger. Match your burger with sides like onion rings, fries smothered with three Wisconsin cheeses, or portabella fries.

Date Night: The Pasta Tree

Beer List: Café Centraal

With a nod to the Netherlands, Café Centraal on a street corner in bustling Bay View boasts a beer list so thick, it&rsquos more like a book. Inside the leather cover are 15 pages of selections spanning Wisconsin and Belgium, including draught and bottle picks. Lowlands Brewing Collaborative &mdash a special project between the café&rsquos restaurant-group owner (Lowlands) and various breweries &mdash has resulted in seasonal, exclusive beers like the Centraal Quadder Bourbon Barrel Aged, from Central Waters Brewing Company out of nearby Amherst, Wisconsin. Pair your pint with gastropub fare like potato-bacon pierogis or the half-pound South Pacific grass-fed burger topped with bánh mì slaw: Each menu item offers a suggested beer pairing.

Themed Dining: SafeHouse

An institution in downtown Milwaukee, SafeHouse is a spy-themed eatery with gastropub-type fare and a password is required upon entry. Those who fail to deliver the right code are forced to do little tricks — under the watchful eye of a video camera that broadcasts to dining patrons — before they’re granted access. Look for it in an alleyway across from the Pabst Theater and Milwaukee Repertory Theater. On Monday nights, spy flicks are shown, and Undercover Hour (at the bar only, on weeknights) means happy-hour drink specials. Sharable plates include Fried C4 Cheese Curds and Nachos Camp Stanley, and there’s a mix of healthy items and meaty picks, like the Bourne Identity Salad, Cuban Missile Crisis sandwich and Mata Hari’s Meatloaf. Diners sit in spy-friendly dimly lit rooms with walls plastered in memorabilia and framed wartime photos.


Dry-aged ribeye at Boeufhaus Barry Brecheisen

WHAT: A Chicago steakhouse that’s not a “Chicago steakhouse.” WHY: The mighty Chicago steakhouse is more than a category in a restaurant guidebook, it’s an idea. They are the sum of many parts — mahogany bars tops, Caesar salads, and $20 valet fees — the majority clustered in the River North neighborhood frequented by corporate muckety-mucks with black credit cards. Boeufhaus lies several miles west of that scene, and despite calling itself a French-German brasserie, the restaurant is one of the city’s finest practitioners of the seared beef steak. The money item is the dry-aged ribeye, cooked flawlessly in a cast-iron skillet. At lunch, Boeufhaus transforms into a delicatessen, applying its meat-cooking knowhow to a slate of classic sandwiches. — Kevin Pang

The best restaurant in every state

Though they use French techniques, chefs Frank and Pardis Stitt still infuse southern comfort into every meal at Highlands Bar and Grill. The menu changes daily to incorporate seasonal ingredients, and the restaurant was a James Beard Outstanding Restaurants semifinalist, as well as one of OpenTable's top 100 restaurants for 2013.

ALASKA: Jens' Restaurant

Location: Anchorage

Chef: Jens Hansen

Consistently rated the top spot for seafood in Anchorage, Jens' Restaurant was named Best Overall, Best Ambiance, and Best Food, among others, by OpenTable. And not only are the ingredients fresh from the sea, but the menu is too — Chef Hansen updates the selection seasonally to incorporate regional specialties from his most recent travels.

For a more low-key experience, guests can stop by the adjacent wine bar, which features a full menu and over 40 different bottles of wine.


Location: Chandler

Chef: Conor Favre

Kai — which means "seed" in the Pima language — serves up a winning combination of modern techniques and traditional Native American flavors. Two tasting menus are available for guests who want to try it all: "Short Story" for $135 and "Journey" for $225.

Kai took the No. 8 spot on OpenTable's Best Restaurants of America list for 2014 and is a AAA Five Diamond Award recipient. The restaurant also has near perfect scores on both Zagat (87/90) and OpenTable (4.9/5).

ARKANSAS: South on Main

Location: Little Rock

Chef: Matthew Bell

A local favorite, South on Main was voted Best New Restaurant and runner up for Best Overall in the Arkansas Times 2014 readers' choice awards. Stop in for creative dishes with southern flair, such as the BBQ oysters or the pan seared catfish with crispy fried grits, but stay for the show — the space doubles as a concert venue, often showcasing local talent.

CALIFORNIA: The French Laundry

Location: Yountville

Chef: Thomas Keller

With three Michelin stars and a slew of awards, including the No. 44 spot on The World's 100 Best Restaurants list and the No. 3 spot on our list of the best restaurants in America, the $295 price tag is well worth it at The French Laundry.

Diners can choose between one of Chef Keller's two prix fixe menus — the chef's tasting menu or the vegetable tasting menu — which change daily and don't repeat a single ingredient throughout.

COLORADO: Frasca Food & Wine

Location: Boulder

Chef: Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson

Claiming the No. 40 spot on the Daily Meal's list, Frasca Food & Wine is also highly rated on Zagat and took home the 2013 James Beard Award for outstanding wine program. In addition to quality food, the Italian eatery has an extensive wine list, featuring over 200 bottles, with knowledgeable servers to help you select the perfect complement to your meal.


Location: Branford

Chef: Roy Ip

Named No. 1 in the state by Zagat, French-inspired Le Petit Cafe focuses on simple, fresh flavors — Chef Ip believes in letting the food speak for itself. With the $55.50 prix fixe menu, guests choose from a host of carefully curated appetizers and entrees, including duck leg confit, miso-glazed Chilean sea bass, or "Provençal Style" rack of lamb, all prepared by Chef Ip himself.


Location: Wilmington

Chef: Michael DiBianca

Chef DiBianca believes in serving "just good food" at Moro, where he aims to give classic dishes a modern spin. DiBianca cooks up offerings such as veal-ricotta meatballs and lump crab mac & cheese, and maintains a 'come as you are' atmosphere.

Moro was awarded Best Service in Delaware by OpenTable and its food recieved a high 25/30 rating from Zagat.

FLORIDA: Bern's Steak House

Location: Tampa

Chef: Habteab Hamde

Every element at Bern's Steak House, from their perfectly aged steaks to their elaborate wine list to their impeccable desserts, comes together to turn a normal night out into a meal you'll never forget. A James Beard Outstanding Restaurant semifinalist and No. 10 on our list of the best restaurants in America, Bern's knows fine dining.

GEORGIA: Bacchanalia

Location: Atlanta

Chef: David A. Carson

Named the No. 1 restaurant in Atlanta by Zagat and the No. 26 restaurant in America by Business Insider, Bacchanalia serves contemporary American dishes, such as celery root ravioli and shrimp bisque with mussels. Freshness is a priority here, and the restaurant uses all organic ingredients, with many sourced from the chefs' personal farm.


Location: Honolulu

Chef: Wade Ueoka

For food as beautiful as the surrounding landscape, Honolulu's MW is just the ticket. The restaurant serves up a variety of local flavors, from mochi crusted opakapaka to tropical fruit creamsicle brulée. Experience the five-course tasting menu for $65, or order a la carte.

MW was also a 2014 James Beard Foundation Awards semifinalist for Best New Restaurant.

IDAHO: State & Lemp

Location: Boise

Chef: Kris Komori

Idaho isn't just about potatoes — State & Lemp's contemporary American cuisine shines with the creative, locally-sourced dishes on their five-course prix fixe menu, such as pork gyoza with seaweed salad and celery root soup. It's also the highest rated restaurant in the state on OpenTable, claiming 14 best in state awards, including Best Overall in Idaho and Best Food in Idaho.


Location: Chicago

Chef: Grant Achatz

At Alinea, guests can always expect something modern and exquisite. The only Chicago restaurant to boast three Michelin stars, Alinea also has four James Beard awards under its belt and came in at No. 7 on our list of the best restaurants in America. Depending on the day of the week, tickets for the tasting menu vary between $210 and $265.

INDIANA: Restaurant Tallent

Location: Bloomington

Chef: David Tallent

Helmed by eight-time James Beard semifinalist David Tallent — who was most recently nominated for Best Chef, Great Lakes in 2014 — Restaurant Tallent brings creative Italian dishes to Bloomington, such as semolina gnocchi bolognese or smoking goose mortadella scarpinocc. Whenever possible, Tallent strives to use organically raised meat and produce from local farms. A five-course tasting menu is available for $65 per person, or items may be ordered a la carte.

IOWA: Centro

Location: Des Moines

Chef: George Formaro

Whether you're feeling adventurous or craving simple comfort foods, Centro's eclectic urban Italian menu, featuring everything from specialty pizzas to seared sea scallops to homemade pasta, is sure to please.

The restaurant was named Best Overall, Best Ambiance, and Best Food in Iowa on OpenTable and named Best First Date Spot by local magazine Cityview, who also called Chef Formaro the best in Des Moines.

KANSAS: Harry's Restaurant

Location: Manhattan

Chef: Cadell Bynum

Located in the historic Wareham Hotel, Harry's Restaurant serves classic, upscale dishes that match the glamour of the location. The Manhattan mainstay has been featured on Midwest Living's "Best of the Midwest" and Travel + Leisure's "United States of Deliciousness" lists, and was named one of the best overall restaurants near Kansas City by OpenTable.


Location: Louisville

Chef: Kevin Ashworth and Edward Lee

A 2014 James Beard Foundation Awards semifinalist for Best New Restaurant and named as one of the best new restaurants in the midwest by Condé Nast Traveler, MilkWood gives typical southern flavors an Asian twist. From octopus bacon to miso smothered chicken to sorghum and grits ice cream, Chef Lee aspires to push the limits of what southern cooking can be.

LOUISIANA: Commander's Palace

Location: New Orleans

Chef: Tory McPhail

Claiming the No. 11 spot on the Daily Meal's list and No. 33 on ours, Commader's Palace has served elegant meals in New Orleans' Garden District since 1880. The historic building is a landmark itself, complemented by Chef McPhail's take on classic Creole cuisine, including crab boil vichyssoise, cast iron seared gulf fish, and strawberry beignets.

MAINE: Fore Street

Location: Portland

Chef: Sam Hayward

Though on the expensive side (typically over $50 per person), food is sure to be fresh at Fore Street — in fact, Chef Hayward sources all his ingredients from local farmers, fishermen, and cheese makers, and designs a new menu daily using what's available.

In 2014, the restaurant was a James Beard Outstanding Restaurants semifinalist.

MARYLAND: Charleston

Location: Baltimore

Chef: Cindy Wolf

Nabbing the No. 5 spot on OpenTable's list of the Best 100 restaurants for 2013, Charleston combines French traditions with the low country flavors of South Carolina, the state where the spot takes its name. Guests can choose from three courses all the way up to six, with prices ranging from $79 to $114. Chef Wolf, a three-time finalist for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic by the James Beard Foundation, tweaks the menu daily to integrate only the freshest ingredients.


Location: Boston

Chef: Tim Cushman

Top rated by Zagat, OpenTable, and taking the No. 32 spot on our list of the best restaurants in America, o ya is a Boston destination. Helmed by Chef Cushman — named Best Chef, Northeast by the James Beard Foundation in 2012 — the restaurant offers modern takes on classic sushi dishes, including Scottish salmon belly with cilantro and ginger or Wagyu beef strip loin with bone marrow chawan mushi, a steamed egg custard. A chef's tasting menu is also available, though prices aren't listed online.


Location: Grand Rapids

Chef: Pat Wise

At Grove, high quality ingredients are the basis of every dish. The farm-to-table restaurant strives to bring diners fresh, locally sourced meals through their extensive menu, which features dishes like olive oil poached arctic char and poached shrimp nicoise.

It's been named Restaurant of the Year two years running by Grand Rapids Magazine, and was voted Best Overall, Best Food, and Best Service in Western Michigan by OpenTable.


Location: Minneapolis

Chef: Lucia Watson

For over three decades, Lucia's has offered a small, handcrafted menu featuring local favorites and seasonal ingredients. And with the options changing weekly, frequent patrons can always experience something new.

Lucia's appeared on Mpls.St.Paul Magazine's list of the best 50 restaurants in the twin cities and was named one of the most romantic restaurants in the country by Travel + Leisure. It was also named one of the Best Overall restaurants in Minneapolis by OpenTable.


Location: Oxford

Chef: John Currence

Winner of OpenTable's Best Overall and Best Food awards for Mississippi, this Oxford landmark serves up southern comforts, such as shrimp and grits or pan roasted gulf grouper, that are both elegant and unpretentious. Now a mainstay in the Mississippi food scene, City Grocery pushes itself to experiment with new flavors and techniques, which are reflected in the menu changes every six weeks. City Grocery also came in at No. 79 on the Daily Meal's list.

MISSOURI: Annie Gunn's

Location: Chesterfield

Chef: Lou Rook III

Named one of St. Louis Magazine's top special occasion spots for 2014 and Best Overall in St. Louis by OpenTable, Annie Gunn's provides more than just your run-of-the-mill smokehouse fare. Striving to bring family and friends together, Annie Gunn's elevated comfort food — from lobster mac and cheese to grilled lamb loin chops — provides the perfect backdrop for sharing bites and stories alike.

MONTANA: Lucca's

Location: Helena

Chef: Mike Hyyppa

Lucca's cozy dining room — which seats a mere 15 tables — creates an intimate environment for guests to enjoy Chef Hyyppa's carefully crafted dishes. Lucca's authentic Italian cuisine, including baked manicotti and veal scallopini, earned it a near-perfect 4.5/5 star rating on TripAdvisor, as well as a Certificate of Excellence 2014 from the site.


Location: Omaha

Chef: Jon Seymour

In Omaha's Old Market District lies luxury bistro V. Mertz, where diners are treated to opulent flavors in a homey, unpretentious environment. Guests are sure to find the perfect glass of wine to complement their Wagyu bavette or seed crusted salmon, as the restaurant has an extensive wine list, and was a James Beard semifinalist for outstanding wine service in 2010. The restaurant also claims 15 of OpenTable's Diners' Choice awards, including Best Overall in Nebraska.

NEVADA: Joël Robuchon

Location: Las Vegas

Chef: Joël Robuchon

Located in the luxurious MGM Grand, Joël Robuchon, helmed by the French chef of the same name, is the only Vegas restaurant with three Michelin stars, as well as Forbes Five-Star and AAA Five Diamond awards.

Prix fixe tasting menus of Chef Robuchon's signature dishes, including truffled langoustine ravioli and salad with foie gras, start at $127 and run all the way up to $435.

NEW HAMPSHIRE: Bedford Village Inn

Location: Bedford

Chef: Benjamin Knack

Located in picturesque New England, the Bedford Village Inn serves up contemporary cuisine chock-full of local and regional flavor, from orange vanilla salt crusted sea scallops to prosciutto wrapped pork chops. It has been a AAA Four Diamond recipient for 18 years, was named Best Fine Dining and Most Romantic by New Hampshire magazine in 2014, and is home to the largest wine cellar in the state with over 8,000 bottles.

NEW JERSEY: Nicholas

Location: Middletown

Chef: Nicholas Harary

For both their outstanding food and flawless service, Zagat named Nicholas the No. 1 restaurant in New Jersey. This New American eatery is also a New York Times 4 star winner and listed in Gayot's top 40 restaurant in America for 2014.

The restaurant currently offers three different tasting menus — the basic three-course menu for $70, the chef's tasting menu for $90, and the black truffle tasting menu for $135.

NEW MEXICO: Geronimo

Location: Santa Fe

Chef: Eric DiStefano

Noted for its impeccable service and complex dishes, Geronimo was named Best Overall, Best Ambiance, and Best Food in New Mexico by OpenTable, among other honors. It's also the only New Mexico restaurant to win a AAA Four Diamond award, as well as a Forbes Four Star award.

NEW YORK: Le Bernardin

Location: New York City

Chef: Eric Ripert

Despite tough competition from New York's bustling food scene, we named Le Bernadin No. 1 on our list of the best restaurants in America, as did the Daily Meal.

The upscale seafood restaurant offers a chef's tasting menu for $198 and a Le Bernardin-branded tasting menu for $155, each featuring signature seafood dishes, such as the lobster "lasagna" with truffle butter or the king crab medley with warm matsutake custard.

Table Talk: 8 of Milwaukee’s Best Chefs Answer Our Burning Questions About Restaurant Life

For our first roundtable conversation, we sat eight of the city’s best chefs down and fired off the restaurant-related questions we’ve always wanted to ask. Here is their unscripted, no-holds-barred powwow.

Meet the Chefs

Justin Aprahamian
Sanford Restaurant
“I had an uncle [with] a catering business. He had a party and needed extra hands. I was like 12, 13. I made fruit platters for 10 hours and thought, ‘This is fun.’ Not what I thought of as the professional world – cubicles, punch a clock and it’s 9-to-5.”

Karen Bell
Bavette La Boucherie
“I always worked in restaurants as a waitress since I was 15. When I was in college, I was at a loss for what to do. I’d been cooking for roommates, so I thought I would give culinary school a go. The first day, I just fell in love with it.”

Justin Carlisle
Ardent/Red Light Ramen
“We grew up on a farm, so cooking was a necessity. I went into the military, got out, turned around and fell into restaurants. Like the military, a restaurant has a structure and a work ethic. I pretty much fell in love with that, and fell in love with cooking and food. It went on from there.”

Thi Cao
Buckley’s Restaurant & Bar
“A segment of TV’s “The Reading Rainbow” was early inspiration: “Levar Burton was on and there was a Chinese chef cooking tempura fried bananas, and I thought, that’s cool. That stuck with me. After four years in IT, I wanted to do something creative. So I followed my path to culinary school.”

Jarvis Williams
SURG Restaurant Group
“I started with dishwashing and the opportunity presented itself to get a few days on the line. I realized I had a passion for eating more than cooking, so the reward for cooking was I could make my own meal. Once I started doing those things, it introduced me to all different flavors.”

Peggy Magister
Crazy Water
“I always liked cooking, but I didn’t think that anybody became a chef. When I was younger, that wasn’t a career. So I went into nursing first. [Eventually] I said, ‘I’m gonna go to cooking school.’ I went to school in California, and then I came back here.”

Juan Urbieta
Ristorante Bartolotta/Pizzeria Piccola
“I wanted to become a commercial pilot, [but] was turned down by the Air Force because I had appendicitis surgery when I was 3. Second to aviation, I liked cooking. I decided to move to America and worked my way up from dishwasher and all the ranks in the kitchen and the restaurant.”

Thomas Hauck
c. 1880/Karl Ratzsch
“I turned 15 my dad sat me down, looked at me and said, ‘You need to understand some things. I have money, you don’t have any money, so you’re gonna need to get some money.’ We went to the local restaurant, and they hired me as a dishwasher. The need for a job made me start cooking.”

Innovation Versus Interpretation

With the Milwaukee food scene going strong, do you see it as a place that originates new trends and ideas? Or is it a place that reinterprets national trends?

Karen: I think both.
Thomas: Some of it is truly original. I mean, it’s all out there. It depends on how deeply you dive into the internet. It’s about trying to put your own voice for what you want to do.
Thi: I think a lot of the great restaurants here are more personality driven. If we all put a dish on the table, I would kind of know who made what, because your personality is there.
Justin C.: It’s kind of gone off the label of what cuisine that restaurant is to that’s “his” restaurant or “her” restaurant. This person’s restaurant. Instead of, I’m going for French food or Italian food, it’s now more, I’m going for this individual person or team.
Peggy: When you talk nationally, I think Milwaukee is always about two or three years behind. I’ll go to other restaurants in other cities and I’ll see things and then, I come back and try to do some of that stuff and it doesn’t seem to work. But then again, different restaurants can get away with it depending on their clientele.
Justin A.: Trends are fickle. I worked for Sandy [D’Amato] for a long time, and I owe much of what I know to Sandy. But Sandy always said, “Food goes in cycles. Just concentrate on making really good food. Shut the blinders off to everything else.” In his lifetime in kitchens, he’s seen the same ingredient come and go several times: Figs are hot nobody cares about figs. If you really just focus on doing what you believe in and doing what satisfies your soul, that’s the important part. At the end of the day, what are you serving that makes you happy, where it isn’t about a trend?

The Midwestern ‘Way’

Are there particular things about this region that figure into your cooking?

Justin A.: There’s something about values in the Midwest, and the way we all do things. We’re more drawn to good food, as opposed to seeking out the next best thing. I don’t want to say comfort and familiarity. But there’s certainly styles and things you gravitate toward. There are certain flavor profiles from the Midwestern melting pot that we want to pick up on and see. It’s part of who we are and what our food is. And no trend is ever going to get in the way of that.
Karen: Our way is more defined than southern California, where you can get a lot of produce all year long.
Justin A.: We clearly have four seasons. And all of us here, we try and base our menus on that. We don’t have fresh tomatoes now… that’s just the reality of the situation.
Justin C.: We were storing and canning tomatoes before that all became the cool thing to do, because it was necessity.

The Farm-to-Table Movement

Is using local ingredients that are in season a trend, or the standard, of a good kitchen?

Thomas: It’s the way to cook.
Justin C.: I think it became a sales gimmick.
Jarvis: I don’t think chefs said, I got to get this farm on the menu. It’s just doing it. It’s delicious at the time, and it sparked your emotions and you did something different with it, and it was drawing more people to the table.
Justin A.: It comes down to necessity for a lot of us. You’re getting the best ingredients you can get. They’re picked at the peak of their freshness, they’re not traveling a thousand miles. You’re getting it right away, and you’re getting it from those people who grew it, and you have that relationship with them.
Thomas: Help people in your community. That’s the big thing.
Justin A.: You’re keeping those resources close to home and close to you. It makes more sense because you’re paying for something in-season as opposed to [creating] the carbon footprint. It’s just the way it should be done.
Karen: Not every restaurant in the country can be farm-to-table. We’re lucky that we have all these resources.
Justin A.: But it’s also decisions we’ve made. As a small-business owner, this is the decision I’ve made, this is the way I want to support people around me. There are a lot of facets to that.

Game Changers

Was there a seminal restaurant or chef that pushed the whole food scene forward at a particular moment?

Thomas: Sandy [D’Amato, of Sanford Restaurant]. [Others concur.] I mean, [German chef Knut Apitz’s] Grenadier’s was the spot. When that opened, it all changed. The old school, how you looked at dining, Ratzsch’s and Mader’s, Grenadier’s. Then, Sandy came along and turned everything on its head. That’s the path food has gone. Sandy was way ahead of his time.
Peggy: Styles and different types of going out to dinner… have changed. Not having all the pomp and circumstance: I loved that when that started.
Justin A.: Yeah it was great to be able to go to a bar and get a piece of foie gras.
Peggy: I know! I really liked that! But I feel like it’s turning back now the other way.

Fine Dining’s Fine Comeback

Is the trend going back to fine dining, as in, old-fashioned fine dining?

Thomas: I feel like if you opened Frenchy’s [Bulldog Bar & Grill on East North Avenue, which was known for grilled ham steaks and NY strips] right now, it would be popular. Where people had to wear a dinner jacket, when we got dressed up, and the candlelight, tablecloths. There’s no way it could be on a massive scale, but in a small version, it could succeed.
Peggy: I feel like people’s expectations are very high now. You can go to a bar and get the food, but now people go to these places and they want the service of a 4-star restaurant.
Thomas: Buying an $8 cheeseburger, my expectations are [in line with that], but if I’m buying a $23 cheeseburger, my expectations have gone up a lot. It better be a really good cheeseburger. Everything about it better be good. The ambiance.
Justin C.: I think there’s a battle on. How much of your money is service and ambiance and the white tablecloth to make you feel that way? If I go to a fine dining [restaurant], it has to have white tablecloths, it has to have certain glassware, it has to have certain silverware. That makes me feel better about spending money. And we haven’t even talked about food yet.

Dare to Experiment

Has the heightened awareness of food made the public more accepting of innovation and experimentation?

Illustration by Jade Schulz

Thi: I think so.
Thomas: Innovation for the sake of innovation is pointless. If the food’s good, you can do whatever you want and people will support it. If you’re just trying to be awesome and creative, people will see right through that.
Karen: And I think customers come to trust certain restaurants and chefs, you know. If they’ve eaten there and enjoyed it, they’re more likely to eat something else [at the same restaurant] that they’re not so familiar with.
Juan: I find that as long as you explain and present it in a positive way, and train the staff the right way, they trust. The table will try anything. Our policy is that if they don’t love it within the first couple of bites, we’ll take it back. We’ll make you anything you want. No charge, obviously. But give it a try. Check it out. People in Milwaukee are willing to give it a try, if you present it in a way that you are explaining and educating the public.
Thi: From my experience, it’s building trust. If there’s no trust for the kitchen and the chef, there’s hesitation. “I go back to my standby, the veal Parmesan or the chicken.” But when you start to get a little more adventurous, you really have to establish that relationship first.
Justin A.: Now you see cooking TV shows where the ingredients are kind of explained a little bit better so tripe now maybe has the exposure that it didn’t have 10 years ago. You don’t have to explain it as thoroughly. You certainly have to build that trust with diners, but with education I think it’s easier to push people a little in that direction.
Peggy: And I think the younger clientele is more apt to try these things.

Knowledge Has Its Drawbacks

How has the increased interest in food affected what you all do?

Thomas Hauck of c.1880 and Karl Ratzsch. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

Justin C.: A lot of people forget that we provide a service. That’s what we do. You are coming in for the service I provide. If you can do the service better, then why are you coming to get my service?
Jarvis: People come in and try to match wits. I don’t want to pass a 20-question test before we start the meal.
Peggy: You want them to enjoy what you’re making. But you don’t want them to dissect everything and talk about what they’re eating. Aren’t you here to be with your friends?
Thi: Yeah, people have to critique every single element – the temperature, the music you’re playing. The fact that they’re being so hyper-critical now, they’re not really enjoying the experience there.
Karen: I think people are more knowledgeable and more traveled, which is a good thing. I think also especially here in Milwaukee, people are hesitant to pay the actual cost of food. And what goes into it. So I think that people are getting used to paying a little more in other places, so they are appreciating what goes into it a little bit more.

Every Diner’s a Critic

Are reviews helpful or hurtful?

Jarvis: I don’t read them.
Thomas: I have a Yelp [account] set up for Circa [1880] just so I can see it. Then I just chuckle with it.
Jarvis: I used to read ’em to just to try to get some…
Juan: … just to make your life miserable?
Jarvis: It just started to go downhill. This is not… I don’t make food for that. I interact with the guests and I need to feel good about what I offer.
Karen: But it’s hard to not read them. I’m not talking about the professional reviews because that’s different, but what people don’t understand is that on Yelp, they make it too personal.
Justin C.: I think about what they say, and I choose whether to say well, that does affect or maybe we did something wrong that night, or maybe you know, the food is wrong, service is wrong. If there’s something that happened that night, then we need to acknowledge that.
Justin A.: There’s something crazy about restaurants that makes people want to hold them that accountable.
Justin C.: You open at 8 a.m.? Can I show up at 7?
Justin A.: What, my car’s not done? You should be paying me now. You should fix my car for free the next time I come. Somehow other businesses aren’t held to the same level as the restaurant is.
Thi: I, too, do read reviews myself. I find I read only the bad reviews. Good reviews, pass, pass, pass.
Peggy: I’d rather they tell us [at the time]. Then I can fix it!
Juan: It’s like, you came to our restaurant to have a good time, to celebrate. Whatever it is you were celebrating, and you left mad. Give us a chance to make it better.
Peggy: I want you to have a good time. I’m not out to get you!

Justin Carlisle of Ardent and Karen Bell of Bavette La Boucherie. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

Being a Better Diner

What would you like to tell the public about how to behave?

Crazy Water’s Peggy Magister. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

Thomas: Put your phone down.
Peggy: I appreciate having the time, when somebody does have a dietary issue, I like it if they let you know ahead of time. So then, I can really make it something better for them. Our kitchen is so small. We don’t have everything at the drop of a hat. When you’re really busy, too. So I like that.
Juan: Be open to dining at a different time. I mean on a weeknight, I can understand it. But if it’s a weekend, and you won’t take any other time but 7 o’clock – you have off tomorrow! There’s a misconception that they have a 7:30 reservation, and they’re going to walk in and their table is going to be waiting for them. They sometimes forget that there are other guests before them, and a lot of times you can’t get the table. They’re talking. You know, they pay out their bill, but they’re enjoying their coffee or…
Justin A.: We’ve had people who think that we are lying to them. We are very strict in that we only seat a certain number of tables at a time, because if we said, OK, load ’em up, get all those tables filled right now, then how good is service? How good is the detail?
Karen: Or, walk-ins. People see an empty table and they’re like, well there’s my table.
Thomas: We had a lady go ballistic because she wanted to go from a four-top to a six-top. We said, the tables are square, you can’t fit anyone else in there.
Peggy: Can’t you just shove two more chairs in there?
Thomas: It’s a square, what do you want to do?
Peggy: We don’t mind, we don’t mind!
Thomas: If you don’t mind, that’s fantastic! That table, shove it over here. We don’t need that table.

Operating a Small Business

What are the biggest obstacles in running a restaurant?

Thomas: Here we go! Every aspect of running a restaurant. The problem that we have is that in the last 10 years, [the city of] Milwaukee hasn’t really grown, in terms of population. It’s gone from like 598 to 602 [thousand]. If you look back 10 years ago to how many small independent restaurants there were to right now, it’s gone up like 400 percent. So we’re all dividing that pie a bit more. Where can you cut? Well, you can’t cut the food that you buy. You can’t cut your rent. You just take less money, make less all all the time?
Justin C.: What kind of restaurant are you going to open? If you’re going to go open a 100-seat restaurant, let’s think about this. 100 seats have to come from somewhere. You’re obviously taking diners from somewhere else. For me, the thing I have is tiny. I don’t want to take diners away from other restaurants.
Thi: Let’s talk employees and rates now. First, your personnel in the culinary world. What’s their expected rate? When we came out, it was like 8 bucks. What they expect now, coming out of culinary school, is $12, $14, $15 and never having set foot in a kitchen before. You know, these are double digits on your hourly rate. So that went up. Obviously the rents have increased somewhat. Food has skyrocketed. Something has to give. So that’s the dilemma of a lot of restaurants.
Justin C.: It’s a lot harder to open a restaurant. It takes a lot more thought. We used to be able to open up and have service staff and back waiters and dishwashers and multiple cooks and larger stations and you know, good luck having that many employees! And then being able to run it.
Peggy: Everything’s gone up! It used to be Downtown was the hip place. Now, everybody stays in the suburbs. So that takes away a part of the pie. People on a Friday night are staying close to their home instead of coming Downtown. They don’t want to drink and drive.

Misconceptions About Being a Chef

And some hesitancy to use a certain title.

Thomas: Twenty years ago, our parents are like… what? This is what you’re gonna do? Yes, this is what I’m gonna do. Now, you’re a chef!
Peggy: You’re a celebrity!
Karen: That’s tough, too, for the young cooks. Everyone thinks if they go to culinary school and they pay for it, they are automatically going to be a chef. You don’t start at the bottom and work your way up anymore. [But] I still don’t call myself a chef!
Peggy: Isn’t being a chef, don’t you have to have this accreditation? I thought there was a whole process.
Justin A.: Friends or just acquaintances have the perception that we just make a ton of money. My dad gave me really great advice as I was going through the process at Sanford: How do you make a small fortune in a restaurant? By starting with a large fortune. He was very supportive in the whole process. But he reminded me of that every step of the way.
Justin C.: We have two extremely different restaurants. Everybody sees
the line outside Red Light Ramen. They think, well, you’re making a killing. You’re making so much more money than you are through Ardent. I’m like, I have to do 150 people at Red Light to make the same amount as I do with 15 people at Ardent. Which would you rather do? I’d rather do 15 people.
Justin A.: Yeah, the conception that the money is just flowing and it’s a glamorous lifestyle.
Karen: Yeah, that too. Glamorous lifestyle? It’s 60 hours a week. Burning your mind out, let alone your body out.
Thomas: The toilet is backed up! OK, I’m on it.
Justin C.: Ask our significant others. My wife looks forward to Sundays or Mondays. Other than that, she sees me sleep when she gets up. Because she’s asleep when I get home. It’s hard on them. I don’t know how they do it.

The Lull Before the Weekend

Do we have a weeknight crowd in Milwaukee?

Justin C.: It depends on the restaurant.
Karen: For me, we get a little of a pre-theater crowd. But we stop seating at 9, because after 8, it’s dead.
Justin C.: At Red Light, we get 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. somewhat steady during the week. But it’s pretty much for all of us, you’re not going to get your 8 p.m. seating during the week. Everyone wants 6 o’clock.
Juan: We started a special 15 years ago we thought would only last a couple of months: half-off wine bottles on Mondays and Tuesdays. [Now] it’s permanent. Every year during our planning meetings, they ask me, “So are we going to continue with that half-off promotion?” You betcha, it’s what’s keeping us busy those days. Then the rest of the week we’re surviving. The weekend hits, we’re up and running again.

Illustration by Jade Schulz

The Fun Factor

So is working at a restaurant still fun? Does any debauchery go on these days?

Jarvis: That has to go on!
Justin C.: Not always. Our bodies just don’t handle it as well. We think more about when is our next day off, than when to have lots of fun.
Thomas: There’s always fun and blowing off steam at the end of a long night. Saturday night. That’s part of restaurant culture.
Jarvis: I remember when I first started cooking, I burned myself, and I swore. And I was like, Ohhh. But it was fine. It’s always got to be a lot of fun it has to be interesting. Um, it can’t just be serious and that way all the time.
Juan: What’s fun about this job, the restaurant industry, is the drama. There’s always some drama going on. There’s always something different.
Peggy: And there’s no such thing as sexual harassment in our industry. We all just say whatever we want to say. For some reason. That’s one of the best things about the restaurant. You don’t have to worry about stuff like that.
Justin C.: Except when you get out in the normal world! And all of a sudden, somebody asks you something and complete honesty comes flowing out of your mouth. And they just stare at you, and you’re like, “Oh, shit.” ◆

From left to right: Photo courtesy of The Culinary Institute of America Child photo by Paul Child, courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University Lagasse photo by Sara Essex Bradley

The Virtuoso

Catching up with the chef who put Milwaukee on the culinary map

Four years may have passed since restaurateur Sandy D’Amato and his wife, Angie, left Milwaukee and the culinary showpiece they’d founded 23 years earlier, but his influence here remains very much intact. While European-led kitchens dominated fine dining restaurants and country clubs in the 1970s, this driven, young, classically trained chef returned to his hometown from NYC, not expecting he would help usher in New American cuisine to the still very traditional (some would say stodgy) dining scene here. Or that he’d become a symbol of something much larger than 50-seat Sanford Restaurant.

Now settled in bucolic Hatfield, Mass., the couple are grounded in post-restaurant life, operating the cooking school Good Stock Farm. During the decades Sandy D’Amato spent powering that vessel located inside his family’s old Italian grocery store, the James Beard Award-winner mentored legions of cooks who’ve either left town or gone on to lead kitchens here. The owners of Coquette Cafe and Braise are veterans of Sanford, as is Kevin Sloan, who now cooks for the big-name acts who come through the Pabst and Riverside theaters. And Justin Aprahamian, Sanford’s current co-owner, started working there at age 18.

D’Amato offers some insights on chefdom and his stature in the local dining scene:

What It Means to Be a Chef:
That moniker – that’s about running a kitchen. It’s [partially] a respect thing so people will listen to you. All chefs are cooks, and cooking is the craft. With knowledge comes the caveat of knowing what you do not know. You can YouTube a video of a grandma making Italian pasta to know how to make it… that gives you a cursory knowledge. But does that give you the tactile sensation of “knowing” it? No.

The Cyclical Nature of Food Trends:
Food is like fashion. You look at a designer like Chanel, and think, “That’s Chanel.” It helps to understand the history of food. You should be able to look at the food and recognize the chef. But [chefs] are more interested in what they think they should be doing than what they really should be doing. If you cook like you want to, you’re going to make your own trend.

Legacy in the Milwaukee Food Scene:
We hope we were part of propelling [the city] into the national dining scene and more importantly were… an example that you can run a restaurant that you yourself would love to work at. Making decisions that were not always influenced by the bottom line but still be a successful, vibrant restaurant for 20-plus years.

Angie and Sandy D’Amato. Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki/PLATE

Where Chefs Go: Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Band of Bohemia’s executive chef recommends the Cream City for essential culinary inspiration.

Soo Ahn is the executive chef of Band of Bohemia, a one-MICHELIN-starred brewpub in Chicago recognized by our inspectors for its “unique creations both in the glass and on the plate.” Unlike most restaurants in which drink pairings follow food menus, at Band of Bohemia Ahn has the unusual role of reverse-engineering a food menu based on in-house beers artfully brewed by co-founder Michael Carroll.

As our inspectors say, the result is “so much more than a working brewery with a talented kitchen.” Dishes like Berkshire pork chop served over a pile of kimchi, creamy labneh and compressed apple “defy expectations with delicious success.” Ahn is at the forefront, utilizing not only an impressive cooking background but also his experience in defying expectations.

As a former professional golfer and graduate of Duke University (where he studied psychology), Ahn is no stranger to interdisciplinary thinking. Before joining Band of Bohemia, he cooked at Curtis Duffy’s famed Grace and one-MICHELIN-starred “underground dinner party prepared by a merry band of misfit cooks” EL Ideas, as well as for the Ritz Carlton. While at EL Ideas, Ahn discovered one of his favorite culinary destinations: Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The chef’s first trip to Cream City occurred due to a kitchen conversation with El Ideas’s chef and owner Phillip Foss. “When I was working,” Ahn recalls, “[he] always talked about the best bowl of ramen being in Milwaukee. At first I thought, ‘Ramen in Milwaukee? How good could it be?’” One night after dinner service, a crew of Ahn’s friends from EL Ideas decided to drive up to Milwaukee to find out themselves.

The ramen Foss was referring to was chef Justin Carlisle’s, now owner of Red Light Ramen (which opened in summer 2016), who at the time was hosting a popular after-hours ramen eatery in his acclaimed restaurant Ardent (still a Milwaukee hotspot since its opening in 2013). “Two of the best bowls of ramen I have ever had, multiple Spotted Cow [beers] and many laughs later,” Ahn remembers, “I was madly in love with Milwaukee.”

After that trip, Ahn continued to travel to Milwaukee for inspiration. “Every time [I go],” he says, “I discover something else amazing about the city.” His favorite highlights are the “beer, cheese, people, music, hiking trails and golf courses,” which he considers “some of the best” in the country.

For “cheese curds and Spotted Cows,” Ahn recommends Who’s on Third, a laid-back sports bar with an outdoor patio and sports games running around the clock. (Cheese curds, a Wisconsin tradition, here are battered in Lakefront Riverwest Stein and served with ranch and marinara dipping sauces.)

Beyond the White Tablecloth: Inside the Bold Future of Fine Dining

On paper, Oriole reads more like an old-school rave than a Michelin-starred restaurant. The address takes diners to an out-of-the-way alley where the former warehouse that houses the Chicago restaurant sits. A rather nondescript front door marks the entrance and, after passing through it, a freight elevator becomes part of the experience. When those lucky enough to score a reservation finally do enter the dining room, it’s quite possible that punk rock, ska, or Ethiopian jazz will be playing in the background.

“The whole place is kind of weird,” says Noah Sandoval, Oriole executive chef and owner who also acts as DJ. “It’s white tablecloths, and The Clash, and [servers] in suits, and cooks drinking beer. But it all works out.”

It works out, indeed. Since opening in 2016, Oriole has been showered in praise. The industrial-wrapped eatery also can be held up as an embodiment of where fine dining stands in the U.S. right now: A highly skilled, highly personal, experience-forward creation devoid of many of the rigid hallmarks that once defined a strict category. Restaurants like Oriole continue the trend of chefs and restaurateurs interpreting and reinterpreting the notion of fine dining, which seems to have less to do with linens, cheese carts, and hushed voices and more to do with impeccable service and food presented against a host of backgrounds.

“There’s a cool movement now where people are taking classic simplicity, classic recipes, and traditional service but doing it in a more approachable and relaxed environment,” says Sandoval. “So, all the points of service are super strict. You have to clear properly. You have to pour wine properly. You have to greet guests properly. And yet we play The Clash in the dining room.”

Yes, even British first wave has a place in American fine dining now.

“In my book, fine dining does not have one meaning anymore,” says Ashok Bajaj, owner and founder of the Knightsbridge Restaurant Group, which includes a host of heavy-hitting elegant Washington, D.C., restaurants like The Oval Room, Rasika, and The Bombay Club. “It gets defined in so many ways now. It doesn’t have to have the formality of the traditional fine dining. You have to have a culinary talent. You have to have a space between the tables. The service has to be there. The competence has to be there, but that doesn’t mean the formality has to be there. Informal can be formal dining now.”

Hospitality-driven dining

Mirabelle General Manager Jennifer Knowles says she believes that the term fine dining is outdated. Instead, she would like to see the term refined dining or even hospitality-driven dining used when talking about that tier of restaurants. “We are talking all the elements of what you see in any other restaurant and refining that at the highest level,” she says. “Whether it’s the products you are bringing in the back door, whether it’s the amount of time it takes to prepare the food, or whether it’s the details that go into to creating the dishes and the training of the back of the house staff. It’s taking hospitality hopefully to its highest level.”

The shift toward the less formal in places like Oriole and the like seems to reflect a shift in customer attitudes. Many chefs view it as giving customers what they want. “I think a lot of younger people who grew up in the molecular gastronomy deconstructed food [movement] have matured enough to know there is a place for that, but also that the classics are classics for a reason,” Sandoval says.

Calvin Davis similarly notes a changing demographic among diners. “The millennial generation … has rejected [the idea] of getting dressed up to go out to eat,” says the executive chef of Freshwater in Kansas City, Missouri. “It’s a much more casual generation. Now that [they] are getting their footing and going out to eat, I think that [has led to a] a more casual kind of approach.”

Less fine, more casual

At Freshwater, where the pine tables remain uncovered and servers can roll up their sleeves to reveal inked up arms, Davis chose to put the word fine in parenthesis so his sign reads (fine) dining, a not so subtle nod to his interpretation of his relaxed slash high-end concept. He also designed Freshwater to be value-forward, not something typically associated with fine dining. His tasting menu is about $55 per person and about another $25 for the wine pairings. “I was tired of working at restaurants that I couldn’t afford,” Davis says.

No matter the price, a casual fine dining concept can also reflect the comfort level of the people behind it, not just those sitting at the tables. Sandoval says that when he is off the clock, he prefers the Oriole model or that of Smyth, another Chicago restaurant where he says fine dining is executed “perfectly.” (Although neither embraces Freshwater’s affordability as a guiding principle—Oriole costs about $300 a person between the tasting menu and beverage pairing.)

“I really like going and sitting in super high-end restaurants, but I am much more comfortable eating really delicious food where I can speak and I am not scared of making the wrong move,” Sandoval says. “I was recently at a dinner in Paris. I felt very, very important and very judged at the same time. I don’t want people to feel like that when they are here.”

Showcasing individuality

Since comfort is in the eye of the beholder, it’s not surprising that elements of individuality thread through many of these restaurants, seemingly a result of what can happen when fine dining is not looked at as a singular directive. “We find [it] a very personal opportunity for our clients,” says Jenna Cuccia of 17 Summer. She co-owns the Lodi, New Jersey, restaurant with her brother Joseph Cuccia, the executive chef. The pair grew up nearby. “They are seeing us and seeing the work.”

Housed in a 1916 building that had previous lives as a butcher shop, a bakery, and an ice shop, 17 Summer embraces an industrial chic tablecloth-free vibe complete with the original tin ceiling that Joseph painstakingly restored by hand. The pair, both of whom cook here, take great lengths to limit the number of ingredients in many of their dishes. A decision they view as a type of personal expression. They point to the Kohlrabi Carpaccio as an example of this. The chef takes the kohlrabi, slices it very thinly, and puts extra virgin olive oil and lemon zest on it. Finally, in an effort to balance the flavors, it’s finished with Robiola La Tur, a cheese from Italy.

“My brother is very good at letting the ingredients speak for themselves,” Jenna Cuccia says. “He is very passionate about having three ingredients on the plate, possibly four. There is no fluff here. I always say that our dishes are quite vulnerable because if your technique is off, if the acid is off, or there is something that is not in balance, then you definitely will feel that.”

Treating guests like family

In Milwaukee, Justin Carlisle also takes a highly personal approach to fine dining at Ardent. All the meat used in the kitchen comes from his parents’ farm, the same one where he grew up and has been in his family since the 1930s. Carlisle’s mother crafted all the napkins and aprons used in the intimate 36-seat restaurant, a space the chef describes as roughly the size of a garden apartment. His mom even crocheted shawls for the space that are draped over the wooden chairs for customers who might feel a chill during the night.

“Our story is very much family,” says the James Beard award finalist. “How my family is involved, how we have such a small staff [of eight] and we have become family… We try to take care of each other… We want guests to be part of [that] for the time they are with us.”

Everyone on the staff, including Carlisle, interacts with the guests, a portal of sorts for welcoming them in to the closeness of the place. “Diners now would like to know a little bit more about [the story behind the food] instead of I flew this in from France, and this is the best truffle I have ever had,” he says.

Chefs are inviting guests to experience flavor palates that may be personal to them, a continuing change on the parameters defining the fine-dining category. Bajaj vividly recalls people questioning how he could have a fine dining restaurant that was also an Indian restaurant when he first opened The Bombay Club. That is until they experienced it for themselves.

“As we travel more and as the internet opens the world for us, we are using different ingredients,” he says. “Different people and different cultures are influencing the American cuisines. And, all of these young chefs who were born and brought up in this country … they are introducing [their] cuisine. They are producing the food with the same refinement, as the French cuisine would be cooked.”

“In Chicago in general there are not a lot of fine–dining Korean restaurants, or fine–dining Japanese restaurants, but all of the sudden there are people I know opening these places,” adds Sandoval. “They are on a level that Oriole is operating or maybe even a step up. People are committed to setting those parameters, setting the flavor profiles, and being more traditional with different types of cuisines. The diners have embraced other restaurants, and I think that has inspired other people.”

Compliments to the chef: Area gourmets serve up cross-kitchen love

Today marks the final day of Downtown Dining Week and, with it, the conclusion of Milwaukee Record‘s unofficial Food Week-type thingy we tried to do. Over the last seven or so days, we featured some Milwaukee bands with food names, recreated a classic Dave Begel article, helped a fake cop eat and evaluate a dozen Honeydip Donuts, reviewed the organist at Organ Piper Pizza, found a hidden downtown cafeteria, and introduced you to a great new restaurant. In all, the week-plus period was strange, funny, touching, adventurous, informative, and—at least in the case of the Organ Piper thing—probably a little harsh.

Though we’ve hit a lot of different things, we felt it necessary to close out this food-focused epoch on an especially positive note. In recent years, Milwaukee dining has made incredible strides. While the city’s supper club and brat-based past lingers, an exciting new crop of restaurants continue to open and are dishing out truly world-class cuisine. Perhaps the most important factors behind the striking and all-around encouraging changes in Milwaukee’s culinary climate are the deep kinship and increased collaboration among local chefs. Between sharing ingredient sources, frequenting each other’s establishments, and developing friendships, local chefs have never gotten along better, which only serves to elevate local dining as a whole.

To officially bring our Food Week to an end, we asked some of our favorite Milwaukee chefs to acknowledge some of their favorite contemporaries. A few of them took time away from the kitchen to respond. Here’s what they had to say.

Matt Haase, Ardent
I’ve worked in Milwaukee since 2002, with stints in Chicago and Pittsburgh. Five years ago, the dining scene started to change. While I was working for a restaurant group in town, association with chefs from other groups was highly discouraged. Sometimes cooks looking to stage—unpaid day of work to learn—were turned away. I’m happy to say things have changed. A lot of us communicate, share recipes, techniques, and staff. I’m very proud of the progress Milwaukee has had with food.

I love that Paul Zerkel and Lisa Kirkpatrick opened Goodkind. The food is simple and satisfying. It’s also one of the few places in town to serve late night. After almost every guest chef dinner at Ardent, we end up at Goodkind. I don’t dine out as often as I would like because I have two young boys, but I take my whole family to Goodkind.

Kurt Fogle is a really close friend. We’ve worked together on and off. Although he made his name producing the state’s best desserts, Bass Bay Brewhouse turns out super tasty food. He is the one that taught me how to make desserts that weren’t a joke. I still ask his advice and take his feedback very seriously.

Dan Jacobs, DanDan
My two chefs are Jon Manyo of Morel and Cole Ersel of Wolf Peach. I really only go to a few places to eat—Odd Duck, Goodkind, Amilinda, Ardent, Sanford, c.1880, Karl Ratzch’s, and Bass Bay—but these two guys don’t get the recognition they deserve. Jon’s food is really fucking honest: clean, local, and well thought out. I’ve never had a bad meal. To boot, he’s a really nice guy. Cole was my sous chef for two years and I couldn’t be prouder of him. He’s really turned into a solid chef. His cooking is only going to get better and better.

Shay Linkus, Vanguard
I guess every chef I know around here knows how I feel about them. The real heroes are the dishwashers who show up every day and do their job without acting like the world is going to end tomorrow, the line cooks who grind away in the heat and grease but come out laughing, the hostess who can manage a flawless night and deal with the brunt of every asshole who thinks that tonight is their special night and no one else dare get in there way, the fearless bartenders or servers who deal with so much shit and still have to do it with a smile or mildly amused look on their face. The unsung are nameless to the customer but invaluable and loved by us. Without them we are nothing. Except [Dan] Van Rite. Fuck that guy.

Dan Van Rite, DanDan
My picks are Shay Linkus from Vanguard. [He offers] comfort food with casual atmosphere. The food is solid, and a friendly staff to boot. Also, Justin Carlisle from Ardent. Great food and a different way of eating. It’s fine dining without pretentiousness. He’s very knowledgeable and giving when it comes to food questions.

Paul Zerkel, Goodkind
The dining scene in Milwaukee has evolved so much in the last 10 years and I am honored and proud to be a part of it. When I returned from 10 years working in kitchens in Portland, you could sense the changes were coming in how Milwaukee was dining. It was breaking out of its supper club and chain restaurant shell and evolving into something special. Chefs were starting to take advantage of the produce bounty that the state provides, albeit for only a few months, and farmers were starting to grow according to the tastes of the chefs in Milwaukee and Madison. The “farm to table” movement had finally reached Wisconsin and I could not have been more pleased.

Fast forward another 10 years and you have a fine dining scene in Milwaukee that rivals anywhere that I have eaten. There are differences that make the environment here unique however, especially compared to larger and supposedly more refined cities. The chefs here work together towards the same goal of making the city a destination for dining and rewriting the country’s perception of what Milwaukee offers as a restaurant scene. In Chicago, for instance, some of the chefs won’t share information as to ingredient sources and labor, and may go as far as to actively hinder other chefs from progressing their cuisine in any way, seeing it as cutthroat competition rather than a small part of a larger picture. Milwaukee chefs on the other hand will go out their way to help each other source, staff, and grow alongside one another with the knowledge that everyone else would do the same if the roles were reversed.

It’s so easy to name chefs that have helped move this city forward: Justin Carlisle, Justin Aprahamian, and Thomas Hauck push the envelope as to what and how this city eats. They took chances and were justifiably rewarded for their vision. They also just happen to be some very humble and generous humans, always quick to give advice and answer any question posed to them about their craft.

Kurt Fogle took a huge chance leaving his storied pastry career to open Bass Bay Brewhouse and takes that expertise in a totally different direction. Dan Jacobs and Dan Van Rite paired up to open their new place, DanDan, and stand in the middle of what is new and exciting about the city’s dining culture. Aaron Patin from Iron Grate is the wizard that we turn to when we need detailed science answers to the nerdier part of our craft, and he is quick to advise with his experience and intelligence. Jon Manyo from Morel inspires through his mastery of making very complicated processes and techniques seem so easy and approachable. There are many more that I know and could have a beer with at any time. The scene has gotten so big, but with the help of our fellow chefs, it continues to grow into something we can all be proud of as a city.

Watch the video: 10 Best Tourist Attractions in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (January 2022).