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About four months ago, I reported – with some disappointment – about a trip that I took to have dinner at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York. My wife and I, along with another couple, had been visiting the CIA for years, but we found that this time the folks there had taken their eye off the ball – the food was unremarkable, the service listless, and I wondered out loud if perhaps in growing the place and attracting so much corporate money, the folks at the CIA had misplaced something of the place’s heart and soul.

Now, I had no intention of returning to the CIA anytime soon…but shortly thereafter I got a phone call and email from Thomas Peer, the CIA’s director of food and beverage operations. He’d heard the MNB Radio piece I’d done, and was clearly upset with my characterization. He wrote:

I have personally discussed your comments with the students, staff and faculty and they join me in apologizing for disappointing you. We use feedback like yours as an educational tool in our instructional classrooms to better serve future patrons. Please realize that the service your received is not typical of what we teach at the college. We truly regret that we did not meet your expectations.

At that point, I actually sort of felt bad for the CIA. After all, having someone write a letter of complaint is one thing, but I had a soapbox and 22,000 subscribers…and they probably felt a little blindsided. But Tom Peer made an irresistible offer – he invited the four of us back, and offered to buy us dinner.

Now, I have to tell you that dinner was free as a matter of full disclosure. And in all fairness, I also I have to tell you that it seemed pretty clear that the staff in the American Bounty restaurant had been told to take good care of us.

But I’ll also tell you this – it was a terrific evening, with wonderful food and wine. Among the appetizers were a spicy chili braised duck in sopes, as well as rock shrimp served with smoked wild rice cakes and creamed corn. For entrees, we enjoyed a butter poached filet served with twice-baked potatoes, and an absolutely amazing deep fried soft shelled crab. The wine was fabulous – a 2004 King Estate Pinot Noir from Oregon.

And the service was outstanding. We had a waiter, John, who was in his last weeks of school before graduation and who is looking forward to eventually working as a sommelier, and who brought a lively charm and an excellent sense of humor to his job. One of the things that I said in my earlier commentary was that dinner at the CIA always had been fun - “good food spiced up by an educational atmosphere enlivened by student-faculty repartee. There was always a sense that we were seeing the future of the food business in its nascent form, and that always was sort of thrilling.” That was back this time, and we enjoyed every minute. (And, by the way, it is my impression that all the people at other tables were having similar experiences…)

There’s a lesson here. There’s no question in my mind that Tom Peer made sure they had their “A” game going last Friday night, and they put their “A Team” on our table. After all, they didn’t want a repeat of the first experience. (Which I wouldn’t have done, by the way. If the experience hadn’t been any better, I would have just filed it away as a lesson learned. I’m a pundit, not a bully.) But the real lesson is that in almost every such setting, whether in the restaurant business or in retail, you always have to have your “A” game going, and your team always has to be “A” caliber. You can't afford anything less, because while it might not hurt to lose just one customer, you’re never really losing one customer. You’re losing a lot more, because people tend to talk about bad experiences, even if they don't have a soapbox.

I do have a soapbox. And I’m happy to use it to tell you that the CIA seems to have turned things around.

You may have seen the news this week that is rolling out its music download business online as a competitor to Apple’s iTunes service. You can choose songs and albums from Amazon’s website, and download them for use on any MP3 player, including the iPod. (I’m glad about this, because for the moment Amazon doesn’t allow movies and TV shows downloaded from its website to play on Apple computers.)

Naturally, I tried the new Amazon service, and it works just fine – and seven may be a little cheaper than iTunes in some cases. The interface isn’t as elegant as Apple’s, and the downloading seems to take a little longer, but I expect that these issues will be ironed out pretty quickly.

I am, of course, faced with a dilemma. Which service to use? After all, these are two of my favorite companies.

For the time being, I intend to use both…and I’m pretty sure that there’s plenty of room in the marketplace for both to survive. And as each one comes up with the next innovation, it will drive the other to also do some new…which will end up being good for consumers.

For anyone else out there thinking of calling the NY Mets Suicide Hotline…I feel your pain.

Did you see the story about Mark Ecko, the guy who bought Barry Bonds’ 756th home run ball for $752,467 – and then ran a poll to ask baseball fans what he should do with it? Forty-seven percent of more than 10 million fans who registered their opinions online said that Ecko should brand the ball with an asterisk (to denote Bonds’ almost-certain steroid usage) and then donate it to the Hall of Fame. Which is what he’s going to do, and the Hall of Fame reportedly is glad to have it that way. (The other choices were to donate it sans asterisk to the Hall, or to launch it into outer space.)

The fans got it absolutely right in my view, and Ecko is to be admired – not least because he apparently had three quarters of a million dollars to toss away on a whim. The asterisk reflects an accurate and perceptive evaluation of Bonds’ legacy as a player, and it has a kind of poetry to it.

Bonds, of course, has called Ecko an “idiot.” But Bonds has never gotten it. Never will. What he never has understood is that he has sullied a game that belongs to us, the fans, not him. And now, the fans have spoken, and in a way that will forever mark him.

Sheer poetry.

Thanks to the dozens of you who wrote in about the new picture on the site. And thanks, also, to the guys who created PhotoShop.

I’m not particularly superstitious, but I think I jinxed myself recently when I wrote in this space about being in the final stages of training for the Marine Corps Marathon. Because within days, I got hobbled by a severe case of Achilles tendonitis, which has left me unable to run any distances. Ice, an anti-inflammatory and a weird sort of brace helped a bit, but not enough. Walking is fine, but 26.2 miles of running seems to be pretty much out of the question. At last for this year.

This aging thing isn’t for the faint of heart. I may have to take up biking.

The good news is that if I’m not in training, I can start drinking and recommending wines again.

This week’s recommendation – the 2004 Mosaic Zinfandel, which was absolutely perfect last week with a rich, thick, spicy gumbo that my friend Jim Roxbury made. (I chopped the chicken and the sausage, and provided the bucket of Emeril’s Essence that we used.)

That’s it for this week.

Have a good weekend.

KC's View: