Saturday, January 05, 2008

Virgin America: W Hotel in the Air...But First Class Isn't

Swartz Brothers in First ClassMy brother, father and I flew to Vegas on Virgin America, the newly minted discount carrier loosely affiliated with Richard Branson's British Virgin Group.

Virgin's planes look very "hip" on the inside, not unlike a W Hotel, with "mood lighting" and a state-of-the-art "Red" entertainment system (which, alas, crashed once during our flight, but was still a neat way to watch movies or listen to music on demand). Much like JetBlue, they are catering to the Target crowd: cheap luxury.

Flying first class up in the sky...'Glamorous' on the Red Entertainment System
Our experience was all the more luxurious because we got (relatively) cheap first class tickets. I had never flown first class before, but my brother has some experience with other airlines, and pointed out the following shortcomings of Virgin's service:
  • Check in: Because there was only one customer service agent assigned to first class and a couple people were ahead of us in line, we ended up waiting longer than the folks in the coach line.
  • Welcome: My brother is accustomed to being greeted by name and immediately served drinks. Neither happened.
  • Amenities: There was nowhere to hang our jackets; the flight attendant did offer to take them, but just folded them up in the overhead compartment. Because of the oddly designed seats, there is nowhere to put one's smaller bag (e.g. a computer bag) during the flight. Finally, while the entertainment system screens are nice, they must be folded away during takeoff and landing--thus making them less useful for short flights than the ones in coach.
  • Baggage: Our bags were not given "priority" handling, and thus were near the end of the bags coming off of the conveyor.
Am I complaining? No, not really: it was still a neat experience being in first class for just a little more money. I'm the sort of cheapskate that always buys the least expensive ticket, after all! However, I would not recommend flying Virgin America first class unless the difference between it and a normal ticket is $50 or simply doesn't compare to "real" first class service on other airlines. Virgin America first class is merely coach with more room and free drinks.

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Friday, March 10, 2006

The New Best Cookbook

While it lacks the encyclopedic breadth of Joy of Cooking, the idiosyncratic personality of celebrity chef cookbooks (Emeril's kick-it-up-a-notch joviality, Rachael Ray's Minnesota soccer mom practicality, etc.), and the luscious photos of "food porn" cookbooks (like the Williams-Sonoma series), The New Best Recipe by the editors of Cook's Illustrated Magazine is by far the most useful cookbook I've seen.

These guys--who also produce the nerdy PBS show America's Test Kitchen--try hundreds of variations of each recipe, and tell you what works the best. Better yet, they tell you why it works the best, so you can make informed decisions about how closely to follow their recipes. They don't get super-technical, like Alton Brown's Bill-Nye-the-science-guy wackiness, but they explain each of the experiments they tried and how they arrived on what they think is the "best" recipe. Furthermore, they explain how to cut out time and effort without cutting out taste. Also, like the cooking show and magazine, they include product reviews and taste tests, which will help you make informed supermarket decisions. Yes, there are plenty of other good cookbooks out there, but until proven otherwise, I'm convinced this one is the best.

(The one downside: as Kathy Grace mentions in her otherwise glowing Amazon review, it has a deplorably bad Table of Contents. The Index isn't much better.)

Update: a website that includes reviews, recipes, and kitchen tests with a similar spirit is Cooking for Engineers--a great resource. You don't need an engineering degree to understand it, but those who think like an engineer will like it.

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