Mainstrasse Village becoming the newest foodie haven in the Tri-State, one might think Baron Shirley works on the wrong side of the tracks.
That’s literal, thanks to the railroad bridge that separates the historic neighborhood from the rest of the city.
Shirley, though, is happy right where he is. For the moment, that’s usually the kitchen of Inspirado, the month-old restaurant on Covington’s commercial artery, Madison Avenue.
“I was looking for the next neighborhood ready for redevelopment,” Shirley said. After cooking for a Friday lunch crowd last week, he was still energetic. It was still early in his day, which generally runs about 13 hours.
On his anniversary a few weeks ago, he said, “I got to see my wife about 10 minutes. She understands.”
What she understands is that it was time for Shirley, who has been in some facet of the restaurant business for more than 20 years, to open his own place. He’d spent years in the world of corporate restaurant operations before deciding to do something about the nagging regret in his life: that he hadn’t gone to college.
He enrolled in Midwest Culinary Institute at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. After graduating with nearly a 4.0 grade-point average and the confidence that, at 40, he could still outhustle the city’s younger kitchen staffers, he found work in many of the hippest and most respected names of Cincinnati’s dining scene. Those include Senate and Abigail Street in Over-the-Rhine, Maribelle’s in Oakley and Jean-Robert’s Table downtown.
“At some point, you have to say, ‘I’m going to take a shot on my own,’” Shirley said.
While his experience could have made Over-the-Rhine the logical choice for a venue, he said he wanted a location where he could stand out more. When a downtown Covington space became available, he jumped at it.
Inspirado, at 715 Madison Ave., is across the street from the Madison Theater and its live-show audiences. Braxton Brewing Co. is around the corner on Seventh Street. The Madison Event Center is at the nearest corner. In the next block north are Covington City Hall; Covington’s former city hall, now undergoing a $21.5 million renovation to become the Hotel Covington; 614 Madison Ave., which will become the bookstore and administration building in Gateway Community and Technical College’s Urban Campus; and the historic former Mutual Insurance Co. building, which is being converted into apartments and retail space.
In other words, he said, it’s a neighborhood on the rise that has enormous potential. Further, though there are plenty of places to eat nearby, Inspirado is the only high-end establishment in the immediate area.
“These other places are fine,” he said, “but they’re not doing what I’m doing.”
What he’s doing is preparing dishes from a small — just five regular entrees and five sandwiches, for example — but impressively diverse multicultural menu. Diners can choose among dishes with inspirations as geographically diverse as Scotland, France, Hungary and Indonesia.
That variety can cost a lot of extra preparation time and call for a long ingredients list, but Shirley has made careful selections. He’s not technically a farm-to-table chef, but most of his supplies are local, he said — Sixteen Bricks Artisan Bakehouse breads; meat and produce from Louisville-based Creation Gardens; and food produced by the network of Greater Cincinnati farmers provided through the Ohio Valley Food Connection. (The Food Connection supplies a who’s who of high-end Tri-State restaurants.)
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So far, he is usually the only man staffing Inspirado’s kitchen, but he said he designed it for a three-person line eventually, and he said business has been picking up steadily.
Inspirado is inspiration — the name’s translation from Spanish — for more than food-related senses. In addition to a cook, server and bartender, patrons will find a curator on duty, because it's also home to Madison Gallery.
Chris Green is Shirley’s longtime friend and now business partner. The two met when Shirley was a regular customer at a bar Green then owned. Green’s official job is as an associate professor of biology at UC Clermont College, but he’s always been deeply interested in art.
“It’s therapy for me,” he said. Last year, Green ran an art store as part of Make Covington Pop, an effort to boost Covington’s retailers with holiday pop-up stores.
Why not combine a restaurant and art gallery, they asked when formulating Inspirado. “Why could the two not co-exist?” Shirley asked.
The two decided they can, particularly since they agree on an underlying philosophy for their respective passions: It must be unpretentious.
“I think of art as relaxation,” Green said.
“Not everything has to be artisan to be good,” Shirley said.
While the curator’s job includes vetting the art displayed at Inspirado, it’s also to be available to patrons to answer questions about the work and the artists. Ruthie Myers is Inspirado's first curator. She's a fine-arts graduate of the University of Cincinnati.
Don’t be surprised to see an artist working in the front corner of the restaurant and interacting with diners. Some days, it might even be Green. It’s all part of the plan to demystify art and give local artists a showcase.
The plan also has a second phase. The partners are near closing on the purchase of their building, and they’ll then move to create another unique combination of spaces on the second floor. “It’ll be an art gallery, studio and wine bar,” Shirley said.
Green said the studio space would accommodate up to half a dozen artists at a time, depending on their needs. He expects they’ll be local artists, too, making the space a hub for the city’s artistic community.
INSPIRADO & MADISON GALLERY
- What: Restaurant and art gallery.
- Where: 715 Madison Ave., Covington.
- Partners: Baron Shirley, chef, and Chris Green, artist.
- Hours: Lunch from 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., Monday-Friday; dinner from 5-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
- Seats: 40 in dining room, 10 in bar.
- Information and contact: 859-261-7600; www.inspiradocov.com and Facebook; OpenTable reservations accepted.
On Inspirado’s menu, chef Baron Shirley said crowd favorites so far are:
- Cemita, inspired by the Mexican torta (sandwich). Shirley’s adds avocado, chipotle aioli, cilantro, pickled onions and radishes to braised pork shoulder. Served on a Sixteen Bricks cemita bun.
- Colcannon, a Scottish-inspired side and starter made from potatoes, bacon and braised cabbage.
- Gulyas, Hungarian-inspired goulash with beef tips and egg noodles.
- Hamburger, made with beef from Creation Gardens. “I tasted the meat and said, ‘OK, that’s it,’” Shirley said. Served on a cemita bun.
A favorite of Shirley’s that has won raves from visiting cooking colleagues is prawn laksa, prepared with coconut milk, lemongrass and noodles.