Ferndale’s Little Italy
What: Leader Block Wine Co. & Eatery
Where: 2026 Main St., Ferndale
WHEN: 11am-9pm Sun.Thurs., 11am-10pm Fri.-Sat.
Wednesday, August 21, 2019
For a great Italian culinary experience, it’s not necessary to cross an ocean—or even leave Whatcom County.
Instead, head straight to Leader Block Wine Co. and Eatery. The moment you walk in, you’ll forget you’re in Ferndale, as owners Robert Pinkney, Amberleigh Brownson, and Brett Wiltse have transformed the ground floor and infused it with an ambient, old-world Italian feel.
Dark wood trims on the walls add a feeling of elegance and character to an intimate space where tables are close together, a bar dominates the center and a piano stands against the wall.
The historic building housing Leader Block was once the site of a barbershop and drugstore upstairs—a front for the basement speakeasy. Pinkley, who has owned the building for 15 years, has discovered old bottles, distilling equipment and a speakeasy door down there.
We walked in on a Wednesday night to find Roy Knaak playing the saxophone and a short wait for tables. Behind the bar, Pinkney, a mayoral candidate, was polishing wine glasses and chatting amicably about his vision for the city. His pal, present mayor Jon Mutchler, is the pianist some nights, so if you have thoughts to share on city politics, this is a good place to find the right audience.
But we were driven by hunger, of course, and in that department Leader Block has been doing a fabulous job since it opened almost a year ago. In classic Italian style there are several flatbreads on the appetizer menu, but we selected Germogli di Brussel (Brussels sprouts).
Prepared well, Brussels sprouts are otherworldly and Chef Justin Oberg should be giving lessons on how to prepare these small round veggies. His came roasted with garlic, dried cranberries, parmesan, herbs and a red wine reduction ($12). They had just the right amount of crunch combined with a tart sweetness that was a treat on the tongue.
A quick warning: Leader Block is not a place for a cheap meal. Come for a special occasion. Don’t come watching your wallet. Appetizers range from $8 to $19 while entrees start at $17 for pasta dishes and go up to $40 for a full-on, 12-ounce ribeye. Lunch is a little less expensive (but not much).
We opted for ribeye and the house special, rack of lamb in a creamy quinoa-curry sauce. Both arrived looking like pieces of art on a plate. My steak came with roasted fingerling potatoes, seasonable vegetables and generous dollops of roasted garlic cloves. It was buttery soft, filling and prepared to perfection.
My partner’s rack of lamb disappeared just as quickly. It was clear that Chef Oberg, who mans a tiny kitchen behind the scenes, knows what he’s doing. He loves coming up with special features, so check the restaurant’s Facebook page to find out what’s in store.
Duck, pork, seafood and vegetarian options are also on the menu, as well as a few kids’ offerings for $9 each—mostly pasta and grilled cheese.
If you love fine wine, be sure to check out the wine menu, a large sheet that dwarfs the food menu. There are a good selection of Pacific Northwest wines by the glass as well as offerings from Italy, Spain, and Chile. In July, Wine Spectator gave Leader Block an award of excellence for its outstanding wine program.
Brownson, previously a restaurant consultant and now director of operations at Leader Block, heads up the selection. You can tell she had fun with the flavor descriptions. There are phrases like “grass cuttings,” “wet soil,” “barnyard,” “wet hay,” and “sea breeze” among them. It makes for an interesting read and piques the interest to try a glass.
She’s planning to launch a wine club in September, a members-only affair that will include monthly wine selections, private tastings and wine classes. The three partners are also considering opening other locations in the county over the next few years. Special events coming up include a wine and food pairing with Backyard Vineyards on Tues., Aug. 27. These events sell out quickly, so don’t wait until the last minute for a reservation.
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