How would you like your steak cooked?” asks an employee at Gastronomique, and though it’s a question you’d expect to hear pronounced in a French accent at a fancy bistrot du coin, the woman taking the order is communicating with her customer over the telephone. “Come by in about 15 minutes,” she adds before returning the receiver to its cradle. When the customer arrives to pick up his steak frites, the epicurean entree awaits him on the small countertop that comprises most of Gastronomique’s surface area. It’s packaged in a styrofoam box, and, like every order here, it’s to go.
In front of a sizzling stove in a hole-in-the-wall shop on the corner of High and Crown, a man dressed in a white undershirt flips a succulent patty. His solid build and dark coloring make him look more mob boss than head chef, yet this could-be cousin of Tony Soprano is sweating at the fires of a double burner, not a double arson. Mark Woll, Gastronomique’s founder and chef, is in the middle of a job. And right now, his concerns are culinary, not convivial.
“A lot of customers expect me to smile and be nice to them,” Woll says, mopping his brow. “But a surgeon wouldn’t talk while operating.” Despite the unseasonably warm weather, it’s about ten degrees hotter inside Gastronomique than outside. Though the restaurant has only two chairs, it’s two too many for the space. The seats, like the tasteful black and white photos of the Eiffel tower that hang on the walls, are really just for ambiance. Gastronomique is take-out, gourmet take-out. Walk-ins are welcome, and slightly more experienced customers know to call ahead. But the Gastro addicts-the regulars, many of whom are off-campus Yalies, none of whom can exhaust the shop’s exhaustive menu-are on the meal plan.
Gastronomique’s meal plan costs fifty dollars per week for five meals, each defined as either one entree or three smaller dishes, such as soups, salads, and sides. For a single, crisp Ulysses S. Grant, enjoy five Crispy Salmon Steaks over creamy risotto. Any menu item is game, except for the 17-dollar, twelve ounce steak frites. A customer who ordered the Sesame Crusted Tuna, the menu’s second most expensive item, for each of his five meals could save $32.50-about forty percent-over the course of the week. Though the deal doesn’t compare to a Happy Meal (and the wait is substantially longer than under the Golden Arch), a Big Mac has nothing on Gastro’s popular Crusty Burger. “The Crusty Burger is one of the best burgers in town,” said Paul Schneider, a senior in Trumbull, who lives off-campus and is on the Gastro meal plan. Plus, the ten-dollar-per-meal deal easily trumps the rate of Yale University Dining Service, which charges $13.25 for dinner. “Compared to the Yale meal plan, it’s a lot cheaper,” said Schneider, who insists that his connection to Gastronomique “makes the neighborhood feel more cohesive.”
While all of the nearly thirty people on the Gastronomique meal plan this fall are Yalies-and the service is even billed as a “student meal plan” on the restaurant’s quaintly illustrated take-out menu-Woll emphasizes that the program is not exclusively for students; nor is it extended only to those affiliated with and employed by Yale; nor even only to those employed at all. “I once had a homeless person on the plan,” explained Woll, who would cash the man’s government checks weekly in exchange for five gourmet meals. “I’d feed him steak.” When the loyal customer was released seven months after ending up in jail mid-week, Woll prepared the meals the man had paid for but not eaten.
“I relate to underdogs,” said Woll, obliquely alluding to past struggles of his own. Yet the laminated newspaper clippings that decorate one of the bistro’s few inches of unused surface area belie the notion that Woll has ever been an underdog himself. In one he is pictured, debonair, seated at a table with New Haven’s most celebrated restaurateurs, owners of the swank eats Zinc, Ibiza, and Scoozzi.
Gastronomique is the first restaurant that Woll himself has owned, though his knack for nosh goes all the way back to his childhood kitchen table. “My mother would overcook the vegetables, overcook the meat,” he said. “I would tell her ‘You’re burning out all of the nutrients!” In his teens, Woll attended a trade school and specialized in culinary arts. He then studied at the Culinary Institute of America before doing an externship in Europe and working under esteemed French chefs in New York City. Mid-career, in the summer of 2001, a tragic motorcycle accident left Woll in a coma for three months. Woll slept through both planes hitting, both towers falling. When he finally woke up, a lot had changed. “I decided I didn’t want to work for anyone else anymore,” Woll explained. And so began Gastronomique.
Woll’s blueprint for the restaurant was very different from his final product. His initial vision was a modest one: to be a juice vendor on a well-trafficked Elm City street corner. “I got turned on by an industrial juicer,” Woll says, waxing poetic-even borderline pornographic-as he describes falling in love with the machine. “The concept of extracting a sweet liquid from a hard solid touched me.” The notion of being at the mercy of New England’s formidable climate, however, was less appealing. So, Woll scoped out downtown real estate and indulged his tendency toward ambition and innovation.
The very concept of Gastronomique, whose epithet “Gourmet take-out” is a seeming oxymoron, is a novel one. It’s high-quality output with a minimum of input, like acing a test without making flash cards or looking good in sweatpants and a t-shirt. The concept is ingenious for a university town, where many community members have elite taste buds but too much on their plate to dine out or cook in. From chicken cordon bleu to steak frites, Gastronomique offers an extensive menu of sophisticated dishes, all of them prepared in a space no larger than a Jonathan Edwards single.
“Restaurateurs come in here and say ‘Oh my God. This guy puts out a huge menu, and he’s in a closet,'” Woll says with a proud smile. And it’s true. Out of what Woll optimistically calls a “small-rent” and what others might label an aromatic shoebox, Gastro serves light and hearty salads, nearly ten kinds of sandwiches, make-your-own burgers, eight different entrees, a slew of side dishes, and a handful of desserts. Not to mention a page worth of fruit juice and energy shake offerings, the daily specials, and a chalkboard of crepes-both savory and sweet. Oh, and brunch.
A culinary trendsetter in many ways, Woll is not, however, the only restaurant owner in the area to offer breaks aimed at students. Many of New Haven’s eateries cater to college-aged clientele trying to live cheaply. Both Au Bon Pain and Atticus give free handouts of their leftover baked goods when the stores close shop at the end of the business day, and students enjoy ten percent discounts at a handful of downtown restaurants if they can endure the shame of having their waiters examine the universally unattractive close-up headshots on Yale IDs.
Yet Woll’s motives are perhaps the most humanistic: “I like people,” he says. “I feel obligated to feed them.”
Laura Zax, a sophomore in Silliman College, is Research Director of TNJ.