Travel the World, By the Glass at Yono’s
If wine is a distillation of place, or terroir, then is a sommelier a travel guide to the world via the glass? In a perfect world, sommeliers would know as much about the history, culture, geographic quirks and climate of the glass of wine they are recommending as they do about the grape varietals in the bottle.
“I think of a glass of wine as a gateway to another place,” explains Dominick Purnomo, Yono’s wine director and the restaurant’s co-owner. “It’s a wonderful way to more fully explore the flavors of the food, and an excuse to celebrate the place it comes from. Drinking wine from Italy when you had a vacation there can become a brief return back to that time and place, how you felt, what you saw and experienced. Trying wine from regions you may never go to can be another way to explore a new place. If all things are perfect, a glass of wine should tell a story, and part of our job is to tell it.”
Life feels pretty perfect at Yono’s.
The intimate dining room is a paragon of the classic fine dining aesthetic: plush carpets, chandeliers, high ceilings, tables heaving with delicate crystal, china and silver, with yards of space between. The food, essentially elegant Continental filtered through an Indonesian lens, looks like a work of art but tastes like someone who knows and loves you cooked it. Bonus: Yono’s sources as much as it can from local producers, Dominick says.
Two of Yono’s more beloved entrées that combine both far-flung and local ingredients, recipes and techniques are the coriander- and cumin-rubbed pork tenderloin, with ginger-butter poached carrots, lemongrass jasmine rice, orange-ginger sweet soy sauce, and the pan-roasted Maple Leaf Farm’s duck breast with cauliflower couscous, lime leaf, candlenut and foie gras sauce. The flavors are intense, yet delicately rendered. There are few gourmet restaurants in the world that so successfully—and for decades running—pair disparate cuisines. A meal at Yono’s fairly begs to be consumed with a globe-trotting mindset.
Armchair travel, too frequently, is maligned. But really, one of the best (read: easy, convenient, jet-lag-free) ways to be immersed in a culture is by taking a tour of the countryside via the palate. Dominick has made it his mission in life to bring the world to the Capital District. Not that the restaurant’s other owners—who happened to be his parents—wanted his help.
“I grew up in the restaurant business,” says Dominick, whose parents, chef Yono Purnomo and co-owner and business maven Donna Purnomo, opened Yono’s in 1986, when he was 13. “After school and on the weekends, I was here, working. I loved it, but my parents wanted something different for me. When I went to college, the idea was for me to go to law school eventually. But I quickly realized that would be a huge mistake.”
His parents, of course, disagreed. But Dominick remembers one dinner in Chicago with his father changed their perspective on what fine dining could be.
“We were at Charlie Trotter’s, which is a legend in the industry, beloved in equal parts by the public, the industry and the media,” he says. “That’s rare. But the reason is simple: They have an extremely knowledgeable, skilled staff that sees the meal as an experience. The food, the wine, the service work impeccably together to create an experience that people will remember for the rest of their lives.”
For the first time, he not only realized but truly understood that fine dining could be more than an evening filled with delicious food; it could transcend temporal boundaries and become a way to express values, cultural connections and tell stories. When he returned to Albany, he got his hands on everything he could read about wine, started traveling to New York vineyards and beyond to taste grapes in the field, then the glass. He also became the youngest person to pass the first level of the master sommelier testing series at 22.
He charged straight out of the gate, unveiling a new wine list of 250 wines from around the world, receiving the first of several Awards of Excellence from Wine Spectator magazine and an award for Best Wine Program in the Mid-Atlantic states from Santé magazine, all in his first year running the program at Yono’s. His passion is palpable, and as is often the case when discussing the object of a savant’s delight—catching.
“What’s beautiful about wine is that it is everything,” Dominick says. “A talented winemaker creates wines made from specific grapes that thrive in the vineyard they’re grown in, that are able to express the climate and place and people of the country. Wine has the ability to connect time and place to people, and my job is to help people hear and taste their stories with their dinner.”
If they want to hear those stories, of course. In addition to being able to provide a cultural and historical backdrop, an effective sommelier (and travel guide) also has to be able to assess what his clients want to know, and when. There are more than 1,000 wines on Yono’s ever-evolving 93-page list after all, from the $39 Tocai Friuliano, from New York’s own Millbrook, to the $1,499 Chateau Petrus.
“I introduce myself and it’s pretty easy to figure out why people are there,” Dominick says. “A group of business people are going to want a different experience than a couple on their wedding anniversary. For a lot of people, Yono’s is a specific celebration, but I have a significant base of clients that come to us at least once a month, and I often make purchases specifically with one client in mind.”
He considers all diners’ frames of mind, finds out what they’re ordering, what their priorities are, and makes recommendations from there, often sharing snippets about the winemaker or the new flavor components an innovative winemaker manages to tease out of a familiar grape varietal with unusual growing techniques. Dominick makes diners feel the Tuscan sun on their face before they take a sip of the Brunello di Montalcino he pours for them.
Yono’s wine list is large but easy to navigate, with sections divided by region. They feature every major wine production region in the world, 17 in total, with special attention for New York State wines and sommelier-produced wines.
Dominick also understands the way people live today, even the lucky ones with Gold Card expense accounts, who are unfazed by four-figure wine tabs.
“No matter what you’re spending, everyone appreciates value,” Dominick says. “And with access to Instagram, Twitter and tasting apps like Delectable, consumers are more informed than ever. So in addition to telling a wine’s story, I can explain why a $70 bottle of Napa’s Odette is so much less expensive than Odette’s $300. They’re made by the same winemaker, have an identical barrel program and even have much of the same fruit. Why is one quadruple the price?” (Spoiler alert: The $300 bottle just got a score of 100 from Wine Spectator).
“Wine is still a commodity,” Dominick says. “If it’s a Top 10 for the year in Wine Spectator and only 5,000 cases were produced, you know that next year it’s going to be triple the price. So helping guests navigate their way through some of these details is important, too.”
There are 18 types of custom-made crystal Riedel glasses at Yono’s, each of which is used to enhance the flavors of the particular wines earmarked for each cup; Champagne is served at a temperature of precisely 43 degrees, white wine at 52 degrees and red at 62 degrees. No detail is too minor for Dominick and his team to obsess over.
Yono’s serves dinner at 25 Chapel Street in Albany, Monday through Saturday, from 5:30 to 10pm.