What do you do when you own an old building, dream of owning a restaurant, and have political aspirations? If you’re Ferndale resident Robert Pinkney, you turn that building into an Italian restaurant and then run for mayor.
The managing partner and chief financial officer of Leader Block Wine Co and Eatery on Ferndale’s Main road, Pinkney recruited the help of Amberleigh Brownson and Brett Wiltse to turn his fantasy into a reality last year.
“When I came along as a consultant, I could see that transforming Robert’s existing space into an Italian restaurant would be workable,” Brownson recalled.
Reinventing the 100-year-old building that was once a speakeasy required a cool $250,000 but the trio did an amazing job. The ground floor is an ambient old-world Italian restaurant with dark wood trims on the walls, a bar taking center stage and an intimate space for the dining tables. Leader Block feels elegant and upscale, and its food perfectly matches the décor.
Walk in on a Wednesday night and chances are you’ll find a musician playing the saxophone or tinkling the ivories. Behind the bar look out for Pinkney polishing wine glasses. It’s easy to engage him about his vision for the city – until you pick up the massive wine list and try make up your mind what to order. Brownson, a sommelier and director of operations at Leader Block, had fun with the flavor descriptions, using phrases like “grass cuttings,” “wet soil,” “barnyard,” “wet hay,” and “sea breeze” to describe her favorite wines. It makes for an interesting read and piques the interest to try a glass. Her wine list, which includes a good selection of Pacific Northwest wines by the glass as well as offerings from Italy, Spain and Chile, won an award of excellence for its outstanding wine program from Wine Spectator in July 2019.
“I wanted to have a focus on Italian and Northwest wines, but still offer selections from around the world,” she reflected. “The wines chosen were carefully picked to highlight and compliment the food we serve.” Brownson is planning to launch a wine club in September, a member’s only affair that will include monthly wine selections, private tastings and wine classes. Special events coming up include a wine and food pairing with Backyard Vineyards on August 27.
The food menu is well-rounded but not inexpensive. Appies range from $8 up 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 easier on the wallet, but not much. There are several delicious sounding flatbreads on the appetizer menu but we tried ‘Germogli di Brussel’ – brussels sprouts, a dish that Executive Chef Justin Oberg turns into a real delicacy. 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.
Oberg has worked for James Beard award-winning chefs and on charter yachts in exotic places all over the world. A sous-chef by the age of 17, he has a knack not just for serving up delicious meals but for making them look like art on a plate. We opted for ribeye and the house special, rack of lamb in a creamy quinoa-curry sauce. 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. There’s duck, pork, seafood and vegetarian options on the menu, as well as a few kids’ offerings for $9 each – mostly pasta and grilled cheese. Menu highlights include the lamb burger, vongole (clams in white wine sauce), formaggi e salumi, capesante (scallops) and polletto (chicken).
Diners have been showing their appreciation of Leader Block’s great food and wine by returning in droves. The Wednesday night we stopped by, the 10-month-old restaurant was at full capacity.
“We’ve found Ferndale and Whatcom County in general to be very welcoming and supportive since our opening on September 21st, 2018,” Brownson said. “Ferndale has an energy of growth and excitement with city improvements occurring and expansion of housing. But we have lots of guests from Semiahmoo, Birch Bay, Bellingham and Vancouver.”
The three restaurateurs are considering other, additional locations for Leader Block in the county, so growth is on the horizon. For now, though, they’re just working their magic in Ferndale.