Friday, April 30, 2010

My Vision for Shopping with the iPad

An example of how tablets represent a window into the future, not just a better way to watch movies and play games.

I remember when the SyQuest 44Mb disk was going to change the future of computing, and it did. When I wanted to modify a Photoshop file and create the CMYK layers for printing, I could use 4 of them to send out for separations. At a cost of about $80 for the disks and $15 to the delivery driver (sorry to say the 3300-baud modem would have taken longer than if I had given the disks to a guy with a walker going the wrong direction) it was a small price to pay for the future! To use this example is to say that the future of computing has always been about processing speed and memory. While the newest tablet devices promise to be a mix between laptops and mobile computing there is one incredible difference. Memory is now being eradicated from the equation. For users of Gmail this is already a concept easy (or not so easy) to understand. None, and I mean none, of your emails are on your computer, they are all neatly stored somewhere inside a mountain or at the bottom of the ocean or, well, somewhere… This promises to be the future of tablet computing, where there are no files and the operating system is a very sophisticated web browser capable of running local “Apps” which (eventually) will be nothing more than speedy gateways to greater content. Applications like MS Office? Web Based. How about Media, like my ever-growing iTunes library? All web based.

There is a story about Google saying the first version of Gmail did not include a “delete” button. “Everyone will have unlimited memory, why would they want to delete something?” was said to be heard by a developer. Why indeed! Well, it turns out that the human psyche (or something like that) demands we need one, but that is another story. The developer was on to something, when you run out of memory on the web, simply apply for some more, don’t go out and upgrade your computer. What this really means is that new Tablets are the first generation of devices connected to ever growing content and memory and will be less dependent on faster processing speeds as bandwidth increases. Now what does that have to do with shopping? Well, you don’t see many (or any) people shopping with a laptop, but a Tablet has the potential to be more convenient and powerful at the same time.  It will not be long before you have your first glimpse of someone shopping with theirs and I am sure someone is working on a device to mount it to a cart as I write today.

Software and good ideas are always waiting for hardware it seems, like a patient man holding his wife’s purse outside of a dressing room. In this case the Tablet and “Tablet enabled shopping” has been waiting for two things, one, successful application development platform on mobile devices and, two, universal WiFi access. Sure there will be versions with built in cellular connectivity but the types and sizes of files we are talking about making the tablet ultimately useful need WiFi. Finally, both of these items are reality for the most part and the iPad is currently setting sales records across the country with Apple profits up 131%. Technology? Check.

People want their shopping to be many things; faster, easier, smarter and they want integration with coupons and loyalty cards to make sure they are getting the best deal. Over the past couple of years as Walmart has tested RFID chips to total your basket as you insert items, this enables the “faster” part, but it is a passive system and what shoppers want is a conversation.

Picture here a future shopping trip for my wife, 2 toddlers and myself. Let’s say we are heading over to our local SuperTarget for some groceries and household items. Using my iPad and a Target App I have been managing an ongoing list of items I need during the past week. During this “gathering” phase, the Target App also prompts me based on past purchasing behavior as to this week’s specials on products I have previously purchased as well as having a Tablet version of the newspaper insert.

Upon entering the SuperTarget of my choice, my pad device automatically connects to the store’s WiFi network and a number of things happen instantly. First, the items on my list are auto-updated with pricing info, aisle location and any manufacturer promotions or rebates available at the store. My family gets an automated greeting with local messages and store-specific promotions; there is even a “community bulletin board” access (gotta have those Girl Scout cookies). And, if I choose, social networking sites such as foursquare are notified of my arrival and updated, so I might even see my family’s name on a video screen or be entered into daily giveaways. So, I have a quicker way to shop, I am shopping “smart” and already have a good idea on what my basket total will be when I get to checkout.

Wow! Something has just caught my eye in the electronics section and my son is holding a new video I have never heard of. A quick check on the tablet shows me this TV is the highest-rated model Target carries with 12 positive customer reviews and that video content is not suitable for a 4-year-old. That TV still interests me, so I think I might want to price shop it at some other retailers after wrestling the video away from my son. A quick jump on the Web tells me it is $50 cheaper at Best Buy so I hit the “price match” button on My Target App and try to convince my wife we need yet another flat-screen.

We have now made it to the checkout with a reasonable amount of impulse-buys and are ready to pay. As I swipe my pre-registered credit card (or enter my email if I am paying by cash) my list and my cart come together and instantly update. The cashier is notified of any items on my list that I did not buy so she can ask if I was unable to find them or if the store was out and actually be of help. My receipt is automatically entered into my App, which tracks my lifetime purchases for planning and budgeting needs.

I still have to make it out to the car in the snow and wrestle with multiple car-seat belts but my shopping experience was actually better. And, ultimately, one of the best litmus tests for new technology is still “does this make my life better?” I think shopping with the tablet will be a definite “Yes.”

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Vert in Denver - Wash Park Neighborhood gets a great sandwich shop

Vert Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Went to Vert today in Wash Park. Vert is, of course, french for Green and when you put a French name on your restaurant, I am going to judge it a little more closely. French cooking is about technique as much as it is about ingredients, it includes presentation and is about complementing flavors. I usually give places a pass on some of these things, but when you are French you are getting the press, if you know what I mean.

Vert delivers, a great space in a great neighborhood helps. Across from an elementary school and far enough west of Logan to get a true small neighborhood feel. When you walk in, there is a smattering of small tables, high-top bar tables and seats along the wall. There is more seating in the back but it seems to me to be a place that will always be full.

To start we had the white bean and spinach soup. Good beginning, not over seasoned, beans were cooked well, some simple onions, baby carrots and chiffonade of spinach passed the test. A toasted french crouton elevated the presentation. French, good, now I can relax.

I tried the braised pork shoulder. Super soft and creamy in what was described as a BBQ sauce, but I don't think that description is quite right. This sauce was sweeter, tomato and herb based. Complemented by an Aioli, a little cabbage and lettuce this was a good and filling sandwich. My biggest surprise was the roll, a very thin, very crunchy outside with a soft center. At first it looked to be one of those heavy rolls that often overpower the ingredients and make some sandwiches hard to eat, not here. Again, what I look for is that all of the flavors work together and here nothing stood out, I experienced the softness of the roll, chewiness of the meat and crunch of the veggies. This is good, how it is supposed to be when you have a french name.

My companion had the curried chicken sandwich. This is a bold choice and I see a lot of people try to do curried chicken salad and fail miserably because of too much or too little curry and no sweetness to balance the spicy taste. Here, ripe green apples added a great touch and sweetness to balance the herbs and curry. I will say on this particular day the Tarragon stole the show. Part of a fresh herb mixture dressing the sandwich, little else came through. It is hard working with fresh herbs coming out of winter into spring as their tastes become intensified and you have to adjust the amounts of each to get that right balance - I say taste your food, something all chefs forget to do from time to time. Again, very impressed with the bread, nice light crunch on the crust with a soft and creamy center.

Both of our dishes were dressed with some potato salad. I expected the traditional quenelle but got more of an artisanal smear. Still, all-in-all a great presentation and great meal, I will go back. Great to see they are emphasizing good ingredients and good technique, two things that will never go out of style.

Author's note: Well done to the staff on telling me the sandwich featured Aioli, not "Garlic Aioli" which seems to be everywhere these days. Guess what? Aioli means garlic mayo, so say garlic mayo or aioli, not both.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Urbanspoon Rocks

Hey everyone, don't miss catching my blog posts on Urban Spoon - you can search and add me as a friend. While there, visit my profile as I try to update all of the restaurants I like in each city I visit. They might not all have a review, but if I like it I will always give it an "I Like"...


Monday, April 5, 2010

Chalk Food + Wine in Covington - (Still) My Favorite Place

Chalk Food + Wine on Urbanspoon

Chalk continues to be my favorite restaurant in the greater-Cincinnati area. Located across the river in Covington, Chalk puts together a great, seasonal, menu and I noticed on my last visit, an emphasis on local wherever possible.

This was my 5th visit and I am still looking for something to top the duck “sloppy Joe” and venison pot-stickers, which helped me fall in love with the place. I hear they have a pulled-duck sandwich on their new lunch menu, so I will head back as soon as I can to try it out.

On this night, I started with a French country goat cheese, topped with plum jam and accented with spicy oil, you could smell the quality long before tasting it. The saltiness of the cheese and rich oil were balanced perfectly with the sweetness of the jam. Another sweet and savory treat was the fennel soup. A rich green color with little pools of Spanish olive oil provided the surprise of the night. This soup actually started out sweet and finished with a savory richness. I was not expecting this from a fennel soup, which I pictured to be a lot like an onion soup I guess…

I switched menus for my next little treat and enjoyed goat tartar. An addition to their small bites menu for restaurant week, this dish delivered. The only other time I have eaten goat is when my sous-chef used to take a 6-week sabbatical to go and visit his family in Mexico. He would bring back slow roasted whole goat. It was rich and tender, like pork. This goat, being raw, had a slight game flavor like you might get from venison. The texture of the meat was much like a beef tartar, but with an added layer of flavor. Complemented with a ginger, orange and fennel salad to add a bit of acidity to the deep richness, this is a must have if you visit.

Finally I had the Bluegrass Spring Lamb. When I eat lamb, I need a crust, to know that the pan was really hot to caramelize the fat and seal in the juices. As with a lot of meat, aside from the source, cooking technique is a must. Poorly seared, under-seasoned or cutting it too soon can just as easily ruin a very good piece as a bad. This lamb has it both, a great (local Fair Ridge farm) farm and the excellence in technique, which is a standard for Chalk. Crusty, juicy and full of flavor this dish was the perfect completion to the night. The sautéed spinach was great, the seasoning perfect and Chalk’s take on pierogi by deep-frying added a needed crunch to the plate.

I can’t leave without mentioning the beer. While Chalk’s name includes Food + Wine, I always find a great selection of beers to complement my meal. I had the amber selection from Mt. Carmel Brewing, the third I have tasted from these guys and it was great. Not too sweet and a very balanced amber ale that did not overpower my early courses and stood up very well to the rich goat and lamb entrées.

Overall, not my favorite meal at Chalk but definitely my favorite meal of the trip and best of the year so far in Cincinnati.