Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Rant: TMobile and Other Wireless Carriers (economics/politics, rambling)

This is about my experience last week as I went to my local TMobile store to add $ to my prepaid cell phone. But more than that, I found out about an industry-wide practice that I think is just wrong and should be corrected.

It all started when the previous prepaid plan I bought had expired. I didn't know it at the time because the only notification I got was one text message. Since I never use the phone for texting, it never occurred to me to open it. While at the store, it didn't help that the salesperson didn't really know what any of the plans/rates were, and kept having to ask the store manager in the back. When she finally pulled up my account on her screen, she said that it showed I was on a 10cent/min plan. Since I don't use this second cell phone very often, I decided to only add $15 worth.

So the transaction is done and then I get a text message notifying me of my balance. Except it lists only 52 minutes for my $15. So the salesperson calls in to customer service, and it turns out that unless you buy the $100/1000 minute plan, the rates are higher. The salesperson didn't seem to be able to do anything about it, and as my voice got louder with frustration, the manager came out from the back.

The solution seemed simple enough to me. I wanted a refund. If I had gotten the correct quote, I probably would have made a different decision, and I clearly deserved the opportunity to make an informed decision. Except that the manager's reply was, "Prepaid transactions cannot be refunded. Every major carrier has this same policy." WHAT!? This wasn't a simple case of buyer's remorse. I informed him that this was their fault since they gave me the wrong quote. To which he REPEATED, "Prepaid transactions cannot be refunded. Every major carrier has this same policy."

At this point, I really was yelling because this was so inane. "Do you think Consumer Affairs cares about your policy? Your salesperson gave me the wrong quote. Call customer service, there has to be someone higher ranking who can fix this." Defeatedly, the store manager calls in to the customer service rep, who gives me 150 minutes for my $15. While I accepted this solution because I didn't want to bother with it anymore, in my mind, this was still wrong. How is it that I still had no choice in the matter? The manager didn't tell me what he was doing until it was done, but what if it's not what I wanted? What if I just wanted to get my money back and take my business elsewhere? How is that not an option?

To sum up all the things I thought were wrong about the encounter:

1. Lack of customer service. It's bad enough that the store manager didn't actually train his employees to be up-to-date on the things they offered, but at least the salesperson tried. The manager should have realized they made a mistake and actively tried to resolve it, instead of quoting "policy" and trying to get away with it until he couldn't.

2. Which leads to a bigger problem with corporations in general. It's all about "getting away with what they can", as opposed to developing real, beneficial relationships with their clients. This happens more often than not, and is shielded by, "Everyone else does it."

3. Which was the exact excuse the store manager used. "Every major carrier has this same policy." How is this even an acceptable industry-wide practice? How can something that (I assume) can be easily reversed in the computer system not have a refund policy of some sort? How does the FTC allow this? Or worse, was the store manager just bullshtting me?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Date Spot: Millesime (food)

Everyone has different views about what constitutes a great date spot. Some like it formal, some like it casual, some like it trendy. Everyone is different. So I'm going to first list what I think are the advantages of Millesime as a date spot before getting to the food.

1. It's in a nice location. It's in the Carlton Hotel in the Midtown/Murray Hill area. There's a nice lounge downstairs as well.
2. It's on Savored. That means 20% off food and drink (although an 18% pre-discount gratuity is added)
3. Its brasserie decor can be considered both a casual and upscale setting.
4. It's not full. Been there on Saturday nights with no problem getting a table on short notice. Good for those without time to make elaborate plans while not wanting to wait an hour plus for a table like at many other places.

Regardless of whether those points appeal to you, the food is actually quite nice.

Serves 2-3 according to the menu, it features 3 East coast oysters, 3 West coast oysters, 3 Cherrystone clams, 3 Littleneck clams, 4 large shrimp cocktail, and about 6 small mussels. It comes with 3 sauces, tiny bottles of tabasco (awesome!), and lemon wedges. Not bad for $40 in a hotel restaurant.

The platter also comes with toasted bread and a tasty red wine butter spread.

One of the signature dishes of the restaurant, this play on a Caesar salad features grilled romaine, smoked cod, parmesan, and lime. While I'm not a huge fan of the presentation, the flavors were nice and clean. I'm sure it's better when the romaine is in season. The third portion is hard to split between two people though.

It's getting harder and harder to find classics these days. Two decent-sized pike quenelles, with a pleasant smooth texture, are simmered in a delicate lobster sauce.

In addition to their regular menu, they have a chef's table as well as a $1 Oyster Happy Hour on weeknights.

92 Madison Ave
(between 28th St & 29th St)
New York, NY 10016

Friday, April 19, 2013

2012-2013 NBA Playoffs Round 1 Preview: Western Conference (sport, gambling)

The Western conference was clearly the stronger conference by far, and there are some really interesting matchups here in the first round.

Houston Rockets (8) at Oklahoma City Thunder (1)

It took a career high 46 points from James Harden, and a team total of 122 points, for the Rockets to beat the Thunder earlier in the year. I just don't see it happening again. The Thunder are healthier and deeper, and can focus more on stopping Harden now that it's the playoffs. Harden will still get his share of points, and I expect high scoring games as Houston knows that that's still their best chance of winning.

Prediction: Oklahoma City 4-0
Possible bets: Bet the over on every game. They can't make the lines high enough.

LA Lakers (7) at San Antonio Spurs (2)

It's been exposed that one of the main weaknesses of the Lakers' roster in recent seasons is that they are very slow. The current roster, with Dwight Howard and no Kobe Bryant, is even worse in that department. Against a high scoring offense like the Spurs', they wont be able to catch up, and they have too many bigs who will be spread thin against San Antonio's array of shooters. The season had already been salvaged by getting a 7th seed, and a sweep here won't really raise any eyebrows as they can blame it on not having Kobe.

Prediction: San Antonio 4-0
Possible bets: Bet the over on every game. Popovich is smart enough to know to press his advantage by making it a high scoring affair, and if the Lakers somehow take control during a game, he will not hesitate to go to hack-a-Howard, significantly increasing the number of possessions in a game.

Golden State Warriors (6) at Denver Nuggets (3)

I think this series is a lot closer than people think. While everyone knows about the Nuggets by now, the Warriors are actually quite deep themselves. I believe their three guard lineup (Curry, Thompson, Jack) can run and gun with anyone. The Gallinari and Faried (much less serious) injuries do matter. It will come down to whether Bogut can do anything. The Warriors have managed to get through the season with so little production out of the center position. There's plenty of scoring in that lineup, so if the Warriors can get some interior/fast break defense out of that center position, they'll be right in this one.

Prediction: Denver 4-3
Possible bets: Bet Golden State to win the series. Even though I think Denver will pull it out, the odds (+400) for Golden State represent really good value.

Memphis Grizzlies (5) at LA Clippers (4)

These are two very even teams in the sense that they each do their own thing extremely well. The Clippers are very deep and have an array of offensive weapons, from pushing the fast break to posting up Blake Griffin to having Chris Paul or Jamal Crawford create shots. The Grizzlies have the best perimeter, interior, and help defenders in the league, and can dominate the boards through positioning if not through height. The only thing I do know is that it will be a fun and exciting series. Because Memphis is not as deep, I do think that for them to win the series they'd have to steal a game early and finish it on their home court. If it goes to 7, I think a healthy and deep Clippers team will have the edge.

Prediction: Memphis 4-2 or LA 4-3
Possible bets: There's not much edge here either way, so you might want to just sit back and enjoy some great basketball with this one. It's hard to imagine the series not going to at least 6 games. If you can find a book with exact series outcome props, bet the two prediction choices listed above.

Please click here for my Eastern conference preview.

2012-2013 NBA Playoffs Round 1 Preview: Eastern Conference (sport, gambling)

After not paying much attention to the tankapalooza that is the tail end of the NBA regular season, it's time to get back into it for the playoffs. Let's start by looking at the Eastern Conference matchups.

Milwaukee Bucks (8) at Miami Heat (1)

I just don't see how Milwaukee takes a game in this series. Everyone knows that Miami's weakness is its weak interior, and Milwaukee's interior presence is even worse. Larry Sanders is an excellent defender and rebounder, but there's only one of him while all the other tall forward types on the Bucks are shooters (Ilyasova, Dunleavy, Reddick). The only way I see the Bucks even taking a game would be if they just shot lights out in a shootout, which isn't impossible with their streaky shooters.

Prediction: Miami 4-0
Possible bets: Bet small and try to hit big with Milwaukee outright + over parlays for the two Milwaukee home games.

Boston Celtics (7) at New York Knicks (2)

The Knicks are one of the hottest teams in the NBA entering the playoffs while Boston limped slowly into the playoffs. However, it might actually be the Knicks who are limping now that the playoffs are here. Boston has given plenty of rest to their aging veterans Pierce and Garnett (who didn't play the last two times these teams faced off), while it's unclear whether any of New York's interior big men (Chandler, Martin, Wallace, Camby) will be at full strength. Emotions will be running high for this matchup of two proud teams, but I think the Knicks pull it out with superior scoring talent.

Prediction: New York 4-2
Possible bets: Bet Boston in their first home game as the crowd will be electric and the Celtics aren't the type of team to not show up.

Atlanta (6) at Indiana (3)

This is just a really bad matchup for Atlanta. They are not a very deep team going against a deep Pacers team that plays relentless defense. Atlanta's edge for much of the season has been its tall front court alignment anchored by Horford and Josh Smith, but they face a legit 7 footer in Hibbert. I expect Indiana to start out strong as they played significantly better at home during the regular season, and then grind Atlanta away with their depth and defense.

Prediction: Indiana 4-1
Possible bets: Bet Indiana to win the series. The odds for Indiana to win the series (around -350) represent decent value considering I don't think there's much of a threat of an upset at all.

Chicago (5) at Brooklyn (4)

This is another situation where the teams match up very specifically in favor of one side. In this case it's Brooklyn that has the edge. Chicago has managed to achieve success without Derrick Rose because of their excellent defense. But one of the main strengths of that defense is their defense against the three point shot, which is kind of wasted versus how Brooklyn runs their offense. Speaking of which, Brooklyn runs a lot of their sets through Brook Lopez, who will be a tough matchup, especially if Joakim Noah is not 100%. Perhaps more important than anything else, Deron Williams is looking the best he's looked in a couple of years, and could emerge as the only legit superstar in this matchup.

Prediction: Brooklyn 4-2
Possible bets: Bet Brooklyn in the first half of their home games. Most of the Nets' problems this season come from not maintaining focus and closing out games. It's unclear whether that trend will continue, but they will try to run their sets and establish their size dominance early and I expect them to start games off strongly as a result.

Please click here for my Western conference preview.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

HBO Game of Thrones The Exhibition, NYC (tv, entertainment, rambling)

Game of Thrones: The Exhibition made the second stop of its five-city international tour in New York City over Easter weekend. Lines ranged from 1/3 to 1/2 an avenue block long.

In NYC, HBO partnered with Time Warner Cable, allowing special access to Time Warner Cable customers. While I'm very happy Time Warner Cable helped me avoid the long line, they didn't exactly do a great job of handling the logistics. On the first day of the exhibition, time warner cable customers were allowed to just go right into the exhibit. Soon, they realized there were too many people, and began scheduling specific times for TWC customers to enter the exhibit. Only they never told anyone that you now had to register, and many disappointed people were turned away. Not only that, you could only register a spot on the scheduled list ahead of time in person, which meant that you had to take two trips there to get in. Ok, enough ranting about Time Warner Cable for now.

The story begins in the North, and that is where we will begin as well. The left pic features costumes from Winterfell while the right pic features costumes from The Wall. The costumes really are quite stunning in terms of the extraordinary amount of detail, and how they were able to bring the books to life through them. However, I assume that the actors all had lots of thermal underwear on underneath as these did not seem to be warm enough outfits for the cold tundra that was captured on film.

Next up are costumes from King's Landing. The Tyrion outfit looked a lot taller than I would have thought, especially next to Jaime Lannister's armor. I looked it up and it turns out Peter Dinklage is 4'5", taller than I originally thought, while Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is indeed an impressive 6'2". The one item that caught my eye immediately however, was Cersei's outfit. I did not know she was so slender and couldn't imagine her fitting into how thin that looked. Lena Headey must have an amazing figure.

With a little more meat on her bones, but no less attractive, is Emilia Clarke. The actress plays Daenerys Targaryen, more popularly known as just Khaleesi. In the Targaryen section of the exhibit, they had her costumes as well as the actual-sized prop of one of her dragons. Actual-sized with respect to the third season. It appears those things grow pretty quickly!

Also on display were fairly detailed maps. Maps are super important for the fantasy reader in being able to visualize the novel. I think the map on the left was actually used by one of the characters on the show for war strategy planning.

Also of importance to fans of fantasy, whether through books, tv, movies, or RPG games, are the weapons. The main disappointment here was Robert Baratheon's war hammer (leftmost on the right pic). I thought it would be this humongous smashing weapon. Before he got fat from all the eating and drinking and whoring, Robert Baratheon was supposed to be a powerful and intimidating goliath with this war hammer.

There were also a range of other props, or artifacts. Again, the attention to detail is marvelous, including the letter that Eddard Stark wrote to Stannis Baratheon informing him that he's the rightful heir.

My favorite props from the exhibit, however, included the stuff from Qarth in the left pic as well as the prop in the right pic. The intricacies stand out, as Qarth was supposed to be a great trading city of vast wealth. Have you found the prop in the right pic yet? It's Ned Stark's chopped off head!

There were two interactive experiences at the exhibition that fans could participate in. One was to get a picture taken sitting atop the Iron Throne. The other was to play this game where you pretended to be archers in the Battle of the Blackwater, wielding huge bows. It was actually pretty interesting, except that (another logistical failure?) the person in charge of the line to play didn't make it clear that you were supposed to be aiming for the green stuff (to spread the wildfire) and not trying to actually hit the ships. Or maybe they were just expecting the real diehard fans to know.

Anyway, it's a fun exhibit and a great way to showcase all that went into this amazing show.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Another Visit to Le Bernardin (food)

The last time I went to Le Bernardin, I wrote that it lacked the grandeur that one might expect from a 3 Michelin Star "destination" restaurant even though it served some of the best composed seafood preparations I've ever had. With that in mind, I wondered whether I would enjoy it more going in with a different set of expectations.

The prix fixe menu is 4 courses for $127+t/t. Even though the headline number is higher than all other prix fixe menus in NYC, in a way it's actually better value than the $116 at Daniel and the $118 at Jean Georges as those are only 3 courses (EDIT: At Jean Georges it's actually the same 3 savory courses + 1 dessert). Diners generally pick one choice each from the "almost raw", "barely touched", and "lightly cooked" sections, but both my friend DC and I chose two from the "barely touched" instead of the "almost raw", and they had no problems with that.

The evening started with three amuses presented together. I can't seem to find my notes, but from memory there was a tuna tartare, a crab salad with curry flavor, and a sea urchin custard. The sea urchin custard had a texture that was the closest to Chinese steamed eggs that I've had in a Western restaurant. For my friend DC who couldn't have shellfish, replacement amuses featured salmon rillettes and a maitake mushroom broth.

Having overheard us discuss the rillettes and the Le Bernardin menu over the years, our server brought us a gift of a large plate of the salmon rillettes. I assume the term rillettes is used here to refer to the final appearance rather than the traditional preparation, as this did not feel in any way like it was heavily salted or cooked slowly in fat. Instead, it had a great clean fish flavor in addition to mild notes of creaminess and richness that was just delectable when spread onto crisps of toast. The rillettes are actually offered on the Le Bernardin lounge menu, and I thought they were even better than the ones at the NoMad hotel restaurant.

The bread basket had over 7 different types, with my favorite being the herby tomato bread. There were some hiccups with the bread service, though. First, there was a parmesan mustard roll that sounded very appealing that my friend took the last one of. The last one? How do you run out of bread before 6pm? Second, only when I asked for more bread later in the meal did we learn they had a poppyseed roll. My friend PG loves poppyseeds and almost missed out!

Lobster “Lasagna”; Celeriac, Truffle Butter
The lobster lasagna came with two thin slices of black truffle on top, and a view from the side revealed two layers of lobster meat mixture in between three sheets of pasta.

The lasagna was topped with a truffle butter poured tableside. The pasta was delicate but toothsome, and provided a good wrapping for the flavorful lobster meat inside. The truffle butter works well here, the earthy richness helping to give the dish an identity as something warm and comforting.

Grilled Salted Cod; Soy Glazed Baby Turnips, Miso-Dashi Vinaigrette

Flash Marinated Nantucket Bay Scallops, Lemon Grass-Finger Lime Nage
The lemongrass and lime imparted fragrance and brightness that highlighted the natural sweetness of the bay scallops. A true appetizer, this both tasted good and opened up your appetite for more.

Sautéed Langoustine; Summer Truffle and Chanterelle, Aged Balsamic Vinaigrette
My second course was the exact same dish I had on my last visit 9 months ago. Nothing else on the menu looked interesting enough to me to replace it. While this was still an amazingly executed composed dish, cooked beautifully and with perfect balance, a little bit of the wow factor did wear off compared to the first time I had it.

Warm Green Lentil Salad; Seasonal Vegetables, Truffle Vinaigrette
It has been said that the non-seafood dishes at Le Bernardin tend to be noticeably inferior to their seafood dishes. But this salad featuring a wide variety of vegetables, cooked differently to result in a range of flavors and textures, showed that a lot of thought still goes into the non-seafood dishes.

Roasted Bone Marrow; Sea Urchin, Bacon Crisp
While others have raved about this dish, my friend PG thought that it was good, but nothing too impressive. With such strongly flavored ingredients, my guess is that the dish might have been missing some finesse and subtlety.

Crispy Black Bass; Roasted Shishitos and Acorn Squash “Ceviche”, Peruvian Chicha Sauce

Sautéed Sole; “Almond-Pistachio-Barberry” Golden Basmati, Brown-Butter Tamarind Vinaigrette ($18 Supplement)

Barely Cooked Wild Salmon; “Black Truffle Pot-au-Feu”
This was the version of the salmon dish on the tasting menu. The original version on the prix fixe featured Sweet and Sour Hon Shimeji Mushrooms and Lotus Root; Maitake Broth. I was originally deciding between the salmon and the red snapper. Our captain thought that my first two courses (lobster and langoustine) were on the light side, so suggested this for me. Strangely enough, that made it three courses with truffles. I wonder if "The Fish is the Star of the Plate" should be changed to "The Truffle is the Star of the Plate". The dish was good. I wasn't expecting to be blown away by a salmon preparation, and it didn't.

This was one of the accompaniments to the red snapper dish. We asked to have a side of it for each of us and they had no problems with that. It was dense yet not full of cream or butter. There was just a hint of the fragrant lemon flavor. I don't think I'd specifically recommend it, but if you're a big mashed potato person then by all means; you'll enjoy it.

Accompanied by shortbread cookies, the ice cream was originally a selection of four: Coffee, Tahitian Vanilla, Salted Milk Chocolate, and Pecan. We chose to just have four scoops of pecan. Good nutty flavor, with some texture from the nuts without being too gritty.

I honestly don't remember what the other two desserts were. They were good and satisfying, but nothing that really captured our attention.


The food at Le Bernardin continues to be excellent. It just wouldn't be a place that I would save up money to go to. I would sooner return to the lounge to have the excellent salmon rillettes more frequently. Even the langoustine dish, which was still awesome, lost a little bit of the wow factor nine months later. Then again, in the last six months, I've been to Atera, Brooklyn Fare, Daniel, and Eleven Madison Park. I feel like the push and ambition of these restaurants has raised the bar while Le Bernardin hasn't really stepped up their game. I just find that the original definition of 2 Michelin Stars, "Excellent cooking and worth a detour. First class cuisine of its type." describes Le Bernardin better than the 3 Star definition, "Exceptional cuisine and worth a special journey."

Le Bernardin
155 W 51st St
New York, 10019

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Thank Goodness for DVR! (tv, entertainment)

Opening day of the MLB season came and went, but what I'm really excited about is the new TV season. I'm especially interested in the upcoming season of AMC's Mad Men. I bought the first season on iTunes long ago and watched the whole second season on AMC when they did a marathon right before the start of the third season. I've been watching ever since. I still think the first season was the best one, much darker in tone and more emotional. While I don't think it'll reach the depths of the first season, the show has gotten darker again the last two seasons. The writing continues to be superb, and I'm fully invested in these characters at this point.

Another series I'm excited about is the third season of HBO's Game of Thrones, but I'm most likely going to wait until the entire season finishes and then binge watch it on demand. One show that I do watch every week is ABC's Castle, which just aired its 100th episode yesterday. It is not an epic television show like the ones mentioned above, but it is whimsical and entertaining. Of the network detective fiction/police procedurals out there, it's the one that most focuses on having fun with its characters and pop culture themes. Over 100 episodes, they've covered zombies, vampires, mummies, voodoo, steampunk, spy thriller, phone sex, S&M clubs, pickup artists, sci-fi conventions, late night TV wars, and many other themes that come up in pockets of pop culture. Yesterday's 100th episode was a delightful homage to Hitchcock's "Rear Window".

The show is not without its flaws, one of the most cited being how it's a continuous parade of red herring suspects until new information comes to light in the penultimate segment. But isn't that how most procedurals work? Knowing that the patient must go into cardiac arrest before Dr. House comes up with the correct diagnosis off some passing comment near the end of the hour didn't detract from my enjoyment of Fox's House(M.D.), which was one of my favorite shows for quite a while. Even the acclaimed Agatha Christie's mysteries were full of deus ex machina back in the day.

The show that I am most excited about this season, however, is BBC's Dr Who. It's the best remaining sci-fi series on TV in my opinion, and a great family show. It has its flaws too, often magnified by the scrutiny of its sci-fi fanbase, but the writing can be very clever at times. It's actually the 50th(!!!) anniversary of Dr Who this year, and I'm very excited about what they will do this season in celebration of such a milestone. Yet... I didn't even know the new season started until it popped up on my DVR! Thank goodness for DVR!