Inside a new restaurant in University Park, modern dining takes on a new meaning thanks to table side technology.
A new Carmel Cafe & Wine Bar opened for dinner Monday at 8433 Cooper Creek Blvd., marking the third location for the restaurant group — all located on the Gulf Coast — where your modern Mediterranean dishes are ordered by iPad.
Carmel didn't invent the concept of touch-screen ordering, but should be commended for having this available in a restaurant setting. Pennsylvania-based Sheetz gas stations revolutionized ordering food at gas stations through its touch-screens in 1995 becoming the first in the convenience store industry to do so.
Why it took so long for table-service restaurants to catch on is that you need something portable and unobtrusive — enter the iPad.
Now that tablets are portable, light, efficient and easy to use, making a menu that functions like a website or a sophisticated app is now table side. The restaurant is calling this Menu Pad technology, and when you're finished ordering, you can check the news on the iPad, browse the Web, check in on the big game or heck, even play Angry Birds. It's a great social tool for groups, especially because there aren't any televisions inside.
Each time a new group is seated, the iPad will be reset and the screen will be cleaned from all the dirty fingers perusing before you, explained Terry Ryan, a partner in the restaurant.
Ryan was gracious enough to walk me through the menu where after you start with a drop-down menu, a photo gallery will load of your options and you will swipe side to side to get to the next page of food or drinks.
Not sure what type of wine you should get? Tap the magnifying glass in the corner and suggested pairings are listed. Tap on an individual wine and a brief narrative describing a wine appears. Wines are available in 3, 6 or 9-ounce pours.
"A customer doesn't have to feel like they're liked in to one size of glass or a bottle," Ryan said. A fellow diner and I agreed that the 3-ounce pours are perfect for desserts, especially if you want to switch from a heavier wine to a lighter one to make dessert more delectable.
A Caposaldo Pinot Grigio was perfect with the Pound Cake with Strawberries where a lemon-grilled pound cake provided a nice sweet treat with the kaffir-lime scented strawberries and almond infused whipped cream.
I'm not a foodie by any means so it's great to have crisp, professional photos of the dishes I'm debating to order along with descriptions. Food is visual, so why not have great photos to show it off? And it makes ordering more difficult because each dish is so appealing.
It's interesting though that photos are the way to go now given the old fashioned dining rule that serious restaurants don't place photos of the food on the menu like a sports bar or a greasy diner where grandma snapped the photo in the back. Carmel is breaking the rules and has found a way to create a new one that works.
The great thing at Carmel is that the food looks as sharp and vivid in person than what's on screen.
The spreads and humus should naturally lend themselves to a burst of color and you round the spectrum with the Mezze Platter where edamame hummus, Muhammarra and Baba Ganoush surround a crispy fried feta cheese, marinated artichoke hearts, Peppadew relish and grilled pita on the side for dipping. At $13.99 that is actually one of the higher cost items on the menu.
Small plates tend to hover from $8 to $10 where Atlantic Scallops, lamb lollipops and Basil Grilled Salmon will push toward $20 for large plates.
One dish is affordable, but groups will tend to order more than one plate, and that starts pushing the price upward. Just agree to split the cost of the meal with your friends beforehand to avoid going from a $17 meal to treating the table to $100 worth of food and drinks.
But you know what? Don't feel bad if you spend more than what you planned because the food is delicious if not near perfect. The lamb and veal sliders were moist and flavorful, and I don't even eat lamb. The flatbreads don't cram too much into a slice and are light and crisp, chickpea fries came with a tasty tomato jam and curry aioli.
And then there's the popular Steak Frites. I should be eating more of the grilled Meyers natural angus that's thinly sliced on the plate, but I couldn't help going back for the seasoned fries and dipping them in the bearnaise aioli that was meant for the steak.
Word of caution on timing of ordering — don't order it unless you want it to arrive at your table immediately. The MenuPad is developed so servers won't interrupt business gatherings and will mainly come by to bring clean plates or refill water glasses and try to stay out of the way.
Because of that approach, the other restaurants in Clearwater and Carrollwood have found that stays at the restaurant have averaged to be about an hour or so, Ryan said, because people feel like they can dine at their own pace and they continue to order.
From all that ordering, it's bound that the restaurant could run out of a menu item or might have to change one of the 150 recipes, Ryan explained.
If that happens, the menu item is deleted for the night or remainder of the night, or an update is pushed to modify the recipe, he said.
"If you have to change a recipe with a paper menu, you'd have to tear up a lot of menus," he said.
And with technology, there's bound to be a bump. This one is unintentional though, as when entering instructions for a custom order, like removing certain ingredients, the iPad contains autocorrect, according to a server.
Though the server said she didn't see any funny autocorrections on opening night, one diner did type "make it yummy please," she said.
There's no request needed for that. Yummy comes standard at Carmel.
Carmel Cafe and Wine Bar
8433 Cooper Creek Blvd., Bradenton, Fl 34201
Seats: 150 inside and outside
Hours: Monday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m.; Sunday 5 to 9 p.m. Lunch service begins July 9. Sunday brunch service begins July 14.
Founders and Proprietors: Chris Sullivan, Terry Ryan, Nancy Schneid, Alex Sullivan
Executive Chef: Steve Cook