Get out to the Lead

This inspired downtown space serves art, wine, food

Certain people you can't take your eyes off. They look too good. They seem famous. They know something. If everyone like that had to gather in one place on a Friday night, they'd all be downtown at the Lead Gallery and Wine Bar, sipping oysters off the half-shell between cool washes of wine. In the two months since the gallery reopened in the Holyoke building, Lead (pronounced like the metal) has been drawing beautiful bodies like a magnet. People on the street often pause to peer into the draped windows. The interior is done in muted shades: flat gray walls, brown ceiling, dark epoxied floors. (Not a speck of hand-sponged yellow or red anywhere, thank you very much.) The small tables are covered with bone-white vinyl, centered by wine goblets with votive candles and glass tumblers full of breadsticks. And the chairs! At the bar, neat triangular stools covered in tiger-print Ultrasuede. Around the tables, rounded pale plastic bucket seats that glow and arrange themselves like so many pieces of sculpture. The whole space screams out "Private Party in Progress" (and Lead does host them, on Sundays). Lead Gallery and Wine Bar Mon-Wed 11-11, Thu-Sat 11am-midnight

major credit cards, checks "No one has ever taken a serious art gallery and a wine bar and mixed up the two," says gallery owner Marsha Sleeth, who, along with designers Lamar Efaw and Mark Fessler, conceived the space. Currently showing are works by Brian Burke, a painter from Prince Edward Island. A large, naked businessman hangs near the kitchen area. "I want to make people feel relaxed around the art." Food and wine definitely increase the comfort level. There are more than two dozen selections by the glass or the bottle, including champagne, port, and dessert wines. A small list of beers is also available. Coffee is great: The Caffe Vita organic Sumatra grind, served in a French press, is primeval and murky. Food and beverage director Stephen Rutledge, formerly of Cafe Flora and Plenty, chooses the wine, which is mainly from solid, middle-range producers. Says Sleeth, "We're striving for an international list, and we're looking for the best buys. Our wine menu will change seasonally, and there are always specials off the list." When asked about the wisdom of keeping bottles racked in the window, Sleeth answered, "They never see daylight; it's a northern exposure. Also, we rotate really quickly." Well, it sure looks good. There was no problem with my glass of Pedroncelli zinfandel (California 1995, $6), an easy, fruity drink that worked well with a tender and tiny sandwich of Parma prosciutto, mozzarella, roasted tomatoes, roasted peppers, and Macrina potato bread ($7.50). And the Ponzi pinot noir (Oregon 1995, $9), which my friend Joey was drinking, was as fat a mouth-fill as you'd expect from that reliable label. He nursed it through a very fine and tiny turkey breast sandwich with roasted peppers ($6). A couple of merlots, two French wines, and two Italian wines round out the 11 reds. Sticklers might point out that given the type of food that's served here, a larger selection of white, especially sweet ones, might be more appropriate than the nine currently available. At present, all the food is served cold—cheeses, salads, oysters, smoked fishes, sandwiches, various antipasti—and is created by the immensely promising Drew McPartlin, a CIA (Culinary Institute of America) graduate who worked in Napa before coming here. Among the six salads, my favorites include the refreshing Vietnamese chicken salad ($6.50), with its slivers of napa cabbage, basil, cilantro, and chicken, and the smoked rainbow trout ($7.50). It's a plate piled high with hearts of romaine, topped with mouthfuls of trout and accented by slivers of sweet poblano, pickled onions, and queso fresco (fresh Mexican cheese). Try it with a glass of Sancerre (Champault 1995, $8). Hot food will arrive once the venting system is installed later this spring. But if you wait until then, you'll end up waiting awhile: Lead doesn't accept reservations. In the meantime, you can easily graze your way through the equivalent of a full meal. Open with oysters ($1.50­$1.75 each), or choose a trio of spreads from the five available: mahummara (red peppers), hummus, baba ganooj, tyrosalata (feta), or tapenade ($6.50). There's also a plate of cured salmon ($8) and a spicy, bold Vietnamese ahi carpaccio dressed with ginger-lime sauce, mint, cilantro, and shallots ($9). The five sandwiches include two vegetarian options, grilled mushroom and eggplant. Cheese lovers will note that there are more than a dozen selections to choose from, including two ever-amazing Sally Jackson's cheeses: sheep in chestnut leaves and goat in grape leaves ($3.50 each). Alas, the imported manchego ($3.50) from Spain had a crust—that wasn't its own. If you can't decide, insist on the large antipasto misto ($12), a well-balanced, ever-changing, mostly vegetarian assortment of spreads, cheeses, grilled vegetables, and a handful of Chef McPartlin's house-cured olives. Mild and fruity, these sleek little tidbits can also be ordered à la carte ($4.50). One of these days, I'm going in to drink Bud Light, eat nothing but those olives, and celebrate the fact that I work right next door.

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