Sunday, July 29, 2007

What Exit?

As I start into my fourth week in a row on the road, returning home on the weekends for barely more than a day, all that I can think about is, "so this is what jet lag feels like."

I'm in Edison, New Jersey this week, Exit 10. I've now driven once on the New Jersey Turnpike, and I think I'm starting to understand why the garden state is so frequently summed up in two famous words: "What exit?" I have never seen a road like this before. There are two sets of three lanes going in each direction. One set of lanes is for any traffic that feels like using it, and the other is exclusively for cars. Once you have picked a set of lanes, there is no changing your mind without getting off and back on the turnpike. Each exit is about two to three miles apart, but they each seem to be (in my mind, at least) a bit of an event. It's as if each region of the state is defined, at least in part, by its position on the turnpike. I know that's not actually the case, but that was the feeling I got for my brief trip today from the airport to the hotel.

As near as I can tell, the nearest restaurant to my hotel is at least a mile away. I don't know where exactly, because I have started my week by ordering Chinese food and having it delivered. This evening's orange beef is actually pretty good, perhaps the second best I've ever had. My only disappointment is the can of Pepsi that showed up with my order, alongside the bottle of watermelon Snapple that I actually did order. I don't know what I'm going to do with the vile concoction, but I can assure you that drinking it is not on the list. I guess I shouldn't complain about freebees, but it does make me sad that awful though it is, it will be going to waste.

My flight out had its joys and disappointments. Delayed flights seem to be a theme recently for me, with my flight from Baltimore to Salt Lake being delayed for over two hours due to weather, and my flight from Salt Lake to New Jersey being delayed by another hour for the same reason. But this plane had touchscreen TVs built into the seats, and I was excited to be able to watch Food Network for most of my flight (until we got close to our destination, and the signal more or less disappeared). Unfortunately, the first half the flight consisted of Paula Deen and Rachel Ray (an hour each), so I ended up watching what looked to be some great old Bogart film on AMC until Food Network Challenge finally came on.

Tomorrow I get to show up at the training center as early as possible, and try to get the classroom set up before the students arrive. I'm not sure what traffic will be like between there and my hotel, but my Utah-raised mind is expecting frightening amounts of traffic that make I-15 through Salt Lake seem like a soothing Sunday stroll. I hope I'm wrong. New Jersey, don't fail me now!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Review: The King's Contrivance

I'm going to owe my wife for this, big time.

When I arrive in a new town, the first thing I do once I have my rental car is find the training center where I will be spending the week. The next thing I do is find my hotel. Upon arriving in Baltimore, I set about to find what was a relatively easy to locate training center. Unfortunately, a wrong turn on the way from there to my hotel sent me into a residential neighborhood, rather than the freeway. As I navigated a street that I was sure was incorrect, I saw a sign that said "Restaurant", with an arrow pointing to the right. I decided to check it out, and discovered a manor that appeared to have ample parking, and was probably a little bit nicer place to eat. As I drove around the roundabout in front, I noticed ladies in dresses getting out of their cars, seemingly confirming my suspicions. Attired as I was in jeans and a favorite bowling shirt, I decided to wait to check things out until I was at least wearing khakis.

Today I wore khakis and an untucked button-down shirt. Since this is just about the nicest I ever dress, I decided that now was as good a time as ever. As I approached the turn, I saw a sign that proclaimed this The King's Contrivance Restaurant. As I parked my rental car next to a parking lot full of Beemers, Mercedes, Lexii and the occasisonal Honda, I noticed a "KC" sigil on the front of the building.

As I entered the building, I became increasingly worried that I would not be able to afford dinner. The Matre'D was neither friendly nor unfriendly, but was every ounce professional, polite, and possibly just a bit snooty. Though I suspected he was irritated at having to seat a single person who couldn't be bothered to even tuck in his shirt, he still directed me to a small table where I was handed a thick wine list and a menu which featured a prix fixe menu and a standard dinner menu. Fortunately, the prices did not seem too high on any of the items.

I ordered a seafood bisque and the roasted duck. The waitress informed me that the chef recommended that the duck be cooked to medium. When I politely replied that I preferred my duck to be medium rare, she did not bother to hide a smile that told me that she approved of my decision. I noticed from that point on that the wait staff became increasingly friendly, if still very reserved and professional. I almost wanted to order wine just to see how they handled it, but I stuck with water.

I was served a roll with tongs longer, if no fancier, than any that I own. The roll had rosemary in it, but was certainly nothing special. It was served with a plastic ramekin of butter, piped with a star tip and then chilled so as not to be the least bit spreadable. Since I had no dinner companion, I finished my roll and was left with nothing to do but to stare into space or surf the web on my phone. The waitress brought me another roll, which seemed to be a crustier, chewier, and somewhat older version of the first roll.

The bisque was a delight. I've gotten increasingly tired of shrimp in recent years, yet the few pieces in my bisque were excellent. Neither the shrimp, nor the lobster or the crab were tough, and while the flavor was complex, it was not overly so.

The duck was also excellent. I noted with satisfaction that the waitress placed it in front of me with the protein facing towards me. This is one of the little things that separates the really nice places from the wannabes. While I can't say I was too terribly impressed with the cut on the duck, the flavor was beyond anything that I had ever eaten that had once quacked. The sauce was perfect for the duck, and I found myself wishing I could bring a vat of it home with me. It was served with garlic mashed potatoes that were just a little overcooked, but I doubt that most people would ever notice. I'm quite frankly mad at myself for noticing. A cheese crisp sticking out from the potatoes was most tasty, though I couldn't figure out what kind of cheese it was. Certainly not Parmesan, but also certainly in that class. A roasted pear was served on the side, and thanks to it, I may never be able to eat a canned pear again. It was perfectly cooked, and while it lacked seasoning, I don't think it really needed it. The slight imperfections in the way it was fanned told me that it was cut by hand, not some machine in the back. The haricoverts made me nervous, as green beans always do, but I found myself eating every last one of them. The chef seemed to realize that vegetables require the same amount of skill and attention as everything else on the plate. The roasted garlic butter was a component that was so natural, that it seemed wrong for haricoverts to grow in nature without it.

I've been away from my chocolate collection at home for too long, so I went with a chocolate truffle cake for dessert. The truffle on top was good, but the cake itself tasted more like a real truffle than it did. In fact, while the ganache on top was thick and rich, the cake beneath it could almost have stood up on its own. The raspberry coulis and cream sauce on the plate were obviously meant to be there, rather than being the obvious after-thought that they usually are. Whipped cream with a fresh raspberry and a perfect sprig of mint (useless, but perfect nonetheless) completed a dessert that surprised me in its simplistic facade and masterful execution.

My check (not counting my 25% tip) was about $40, for one diner with no drinks. If you ever find yourself in Baltimore, try to dress a little nicer for one evening and find your way down to The King's Contrivance Restaurant. I feel nothing but guilt that my wife was not able to join me. Obviously, the only solution would be for my bosses to send me back to Baltimore so that I can bring her with me (hint, hint).

The food was excellent, the service was decent, the decor was nice, if a little rustic. Based on the events of one visit, I award The King's Contrivance 3 1/2 Kagas.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

On The Road

I intend to read Death of a Salesman when I get a chance. I'm hoping that it will give me extra material to joke about.

I'm in the middle of my third week in a row on the road. Two weeks ago I was in Columbus, OH, enjoying a Linux System Administration class. Last week found me in Mountain View, CA, dealing with (what was for me) a significantly more grueling Linux System Administration and Networking class. I have restaurant reviews from both places, and they will be posted shortly.

This week has been a dream come true for me. I have finally made it to Baltimore, MD, home of Charm City Cakes and the great Duff Goldman. I've been wanting to drive downtown all week and stalk the bakery, but I'm torn by professional curiosity and common courtesy.

I'm teaching a Linux Essentials class this week, and my class is great. Have I ever had a bad class? Well, not just yet. I'm sure it's on the way. For now I have 10 students, most of which really are newbies that just need to get up to speed. Almost half of them are getting ready to get RHCE certification, and I've been trying to give them the most generic advice I can without revealing anything so specific about the test that Red Hat would be mad at me. Since they're still working on internalizing file permissions and ownerships, I think it may be a while before they're ready. But I think they're driven, and are going to be certified sooner than later.

On the flight out, I was reading Nasty Bits by Anthony Bourdain, which is a collection of short writings that he has done for magazines, etc. He mentioned the hallmarks of a restaurant or restaurant chain that is doomed for failure, or at the very least, is to be avoided at all costs. Little did I know that I would so immediately become familiar with exactly what he was talking about.

The thing that I remember most is a menu's inability to maintain any sort of cohesion. If you see spaghetti and sweet and sour chicken together on the same menu, there may be a problem. Maybe a place really can handle Italian and Chinese food well. I don't believe the China Dragon in Jessup, MD is one of these places. No, they didn't have spaghetti on the menu. But they did have a variety of hoagies, burgers and even two types of "Philly cheesesteak" on the menu. Most of these came with optional French fries or fried rice. One entire wall was plastered with more types of Latin phone cards for sale than I had ever seen in one place in my life. Most of the floor behind the counter was occupied by cases of 20 oz soda bottles, and I could see an entire wall full of empty boxes in the back room, many of which said "Subway" on the side.

I played it safe with the sweet and sour chicken. Or, at least I thought I was playing it safe. My chicken looked okay, but lacked any flavor or seasoning. A quick dip in the accompanying cup of sweet and sour sauce didn't help. This place obviously doesn't use MSG. Or salt. Or any other seasoning that would make anything taste even remotely good. The fried rice looked days old, and tasted even old. Again, seasoning was void. The egg roll was the least disappointing thing I was served, which is not to say it was on par with any other egg roll I've ever had. Ever.

I could feel my arteries tightening before I even got halfway through, and I ended up throwing an embarassing amount of food away. My only consolation was that by disposing of this food even while there are starving children in third world countries, I probably saved at least one life. Most notably, my own.

The next day I decided to check out a pizza joint in the same shopping center. I'm not sure what confuses me more, a pizza joint called Santa Lucia (not the most Italian name I've heard in my life) or the fact that their largely Italian menu also includes both lamb and chicken gyros. The place was clean (both of waste and customers), but I counted at least 6 employees behind the counter. The one who tried to help me didn't look Hispanic or Italian. In fact, he looked just a little Greek. All of his coworkers that I could see looked like they hailed from Latin America. After the (possibly) Greek guy failed to understand any of my questions, a very European-looking man with a killer tan came out and took my order. I'm 99% certain he was the owner. I have yet to place his accent, and I'm still not sure of his exact nationality.

He took my order (pepproni pizza and jalapeno poppers), chastised the first guy for getting it wrong ("you need to start thinking!"), and started working on it. I asked him for a menu to take with me, hoping to understand them a little bit better. It displayed a very prominent logo with a man in very traditional Greek clothing standing between two doric columns and eating a slice of pizza. It was emblazened with the words, "Santa Lucia Pizzaria". I haven't been this confused since I saw the end of No Way Out (how does Kevin Costner keep getting work?).

The pizza was, well, okay. I didn't finish it. I put the leftovers in the fridge and nuked it for breakfast. I still didn't finish it. The jalapeno poppers were good, but nothing to write home about. But I didn't feel that I was in danger of food poisoning, so I decided to try a test today. I ordered a pizza stromboli and a lamb gyro, intending to compare. I find it difficult to believe that any non-Italians can make a really killer stromboli, or that any non-Greeks could make a really awesome Gyro.

The stromboli was an improvement over the pizza, but I've had better. Much better. The gyro was really good. In fact, it was almost as good as I could get at the Greek Souvlaki in Salt Lake. If I don't make it to downtown Baltimore, I may make their gyro my staple for the rest of the week. The problem is, I know it's not their recipe. They had two posters up advertising a name-brand gyro that I've seen all over Salt Lake. It's just a generic (if tasty) gyro that's seems to be provided by some Greek version of SysCo.

You may be wondering why I haven't hit any really good local places yet. Honestly, I am too. My first night here, I asked the guy at the hotel's front desk where I should go eat. He directed me to turn right (as I left the parking lot), go about 2 1/2 miles past the mall, and then look for a plethora of restaurants on the right. I have yet to find a mall anywhere near my hotel (even using Google maps), and the only restaurant 2 1/2 miles down that road is a Wendys, right next to a Car Max, a grocery store, a bank, and pretty much nothing else.

With luck, I'll be able to make it downtown in the next couple of nights. I'll let you guys know.

Sprint: The Plot Thickens

I've had the opportunity to spend some more quality time with a couple more Sprint customer service representatives. I received my first bill recently, less than a month after activating my account, which was asking for about $158 for one month of charges on two phone numbers. I could have paid my bill online, but there were a couple of things wrong. First of all, my account should never have had more than one phone number on it. Secondly, my plan was only $60 (for the phone) plus $15 (for unlimited Internet access from the phone).

The first gentleman that I spoke with asked me for my phone number, area code first. Since I have a Salt Lake phone number, my area code is 801. When he repeated my phone number back to me, he had my area code down as 301. How does an 8 sound like a 3? You may be able to hear a pin drop over Sprint, but good luck getting numbers right.

After taking the second phone number off my account (which had only been a charge of $2 anyway), the rep informed me that my bill was so high because I was using the Internet so much. I informed him that I had, in fact, signed up for Internet access, and that I expected it to be applied to my account, retroactively. He informed me that he would gladly do that, and knock $16 off my bill. I asked him if I had only racked up $16 worth of Internet charges, and there was a pause. He then informed me that he would be subtracting $60 from my bill. In retrospect, maybe that's what he said the first time. It's the whole pin-drop thing.

As it turns out, the rest of my charges resulted from text messaging. I used to hate it, but with a full Qwerty keyboard on my phone, it's a lot easier to use. Since I had never expected the messages to cost so much, I had never added a plan to my account. I had managed to rack up $23 worth of text messages in less than a month. It was my fault, so I had no problem paying.

But there was another problem. My bill did not arrive until after it was due, and thusly, my Internet access was cut off late last week. Oddly, my phone was not cut off, just my Internet access. The gentleman apologized and told me that he would be turning all of my services back on, and that they would be active within 4 hours.

24 hours later, I called back to inquire as to why my Internet connection was still not working. The woman also got my area code as 301, and managed to manage every second number after that as well. She put me on hold for a very long time, and then returned and gave me a fix. She had me turn the phone off, remove the battery for about a minute, and then put it back in, turn the phone back on, and try making a call and accessing the Internet. In 3 to 5 minutes, she would call me back to check on me.

I did as she instructed, and when she called back 4 minutes later, I was able to tell her that everything seemed to be working okay. As it turns out, all I needed to do was power-cycle the phone. Who knew? So all is well (as it can be) in Cell Phone Land for Joseph.

Things are not looking so bright for Sprint. Their customer service is reminding me more and more of a certain defunct computer manufacturer that I worked for in my youth for about 5 years before I realized that my only job function was to lie to customers. It wasn't like that when I started, but it was definitely like that when I left. That company ended up selling their call center to another company as their last dying action before closing their doors.

Uninformed support agents, long hold times when calling in, long hold times while reps look up info, incorrect literature and web info, and even immense confusion as to which contact numbers to give customers. How many companies will fall because of such horrific internal problems? It wouldn't be surprised if Sprint became one of them.