Ask Tom: Rants, raves and questions on the DC dining scene

Nov 06, 2013

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema entertains your dining questions, rants and raves.

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Hi Tom - This is probably slightly off topic, but do you have a go-to meal you cook at home when you're strapped for time? Something that's simple? Also, any favorite Sunday afternoon crockpot recipes? Thanks!

You know what I love? A baked sweet potato, split and topped with grated Parmesan, crumbled blue cheese or cottage cheese.  I try to have a few sweet potatoes around for those nights when I return from a disappointing restaurant meal and feel hungry (or, rarer, when I'm playing hooky).  


Eating a sweet potato makes me feel virtuous. All that fiber! All that beta-carotene! Not many calories!


Good morning, everyone. Thanks for spending some time with me. I leave tomorrow for a week in Seoul, so I won't be hosting a chat Nov. 13.  But I'll be back to talk about restaurants at the usual time Nov. 20.


Lots to chat about. Did you here Perry's in Adams Morgan went all-Japanese over the weekend? Also, Markham's Bar and Grill made its debut in Bethesda and that empty space in Penn Quarter that was supposed to house Wagamama has been taken over by Jose Andres, who is planning a Chinese-Peruvian spot.


Of course, the biggest and saddest news of the week is the unexpected death, at 54, of world-class chef Charlie Trotter in Chicago.  One of my favorite tributes was by Jonathan Gold (of course) of the Los Angeles Times.


Bring on your rants and raves.

Greetings Tom- I'm not opposed to small plates. I like that you get to sample a little bit from a lot of stuff, and most of the new and good restaurants around DC tend to be tapas/small plate-focused. I also get that 'they are meant to be shared' (I don't need to hear this from every server - we know!!!). What I don't like though, is that given the 'pacing' of tapas (again, from every server - 'they come out as the kitchen prepares them'), you are virtually forced to order everything that is agreeable amongst the table, or you run the risk of eating at a different paces. My dining companions tend to run the gamut as to what we like/don't like. Some don't eat shellfish; some pork; some meat at all; some only get the idea. I don't want to dine out and feel like I can't order 3/4 of the menu because everyone at the table won't eat it. In addition, at places with small plates that very clearly have starters and sides, I don't want to eat my side of broccoli as my appetizer (a good 10 minutes before the starter even comes out - I'm looking at you Doi Moi...). My questions: Do you have any recommendations to make the small plate experience enjoyable, so I'm not eating sides as starters, and not eating a plate of something I want, while my dining companion sits with either cold food or nothing in front of them? Should we order one course, then when nearly finished, order the next? How receptive are servers at small plate restaurants being told that essentially we would like our courses to come out together, even if it means holding them under a warmer at the kitchen? Or should I just be avoiding these type of restaurants all together and hope that one day, they will pass? THANKS for all your great work!

I hope every small plates purveyor -- seemingly every other restaurant, as you point out -- reads and discusses your complaint.


What I've started doing to avoid the problem of too much food showing up too quickly is to order just a few dishes at a time *and* let my server know I'm looking forward to a leisurely meal (if in fact that's the case).  If enough diners speak up, what's to stop better pacing of plates?


I'd welcome comments from small plates sources.

It would be really good if one good search for a restaurant by noise level. It seems that the information is only sometimes included in reviews.

I'll pass along your request to the online powers. Currently, all my starred reviews in the Magazine, which are based on multiple visits, should include sound checks. 

Hi Tom! My girlfriends and I are heading down to Buenos Aires for Thanksgiving. Any restaurants we shouldn't miss? Thanks!

I last filed from Buenos Aires in 2007. Perhaps a chatter has more recent recommendations?


Thanks for your feedback.


Did you miss my latest review of Range, from last month's fall dining guide?  While I still liked parts of my meals, I down-graded the restaurant to 2 1/2 stars.

Hi Tom, Last Sat night, we had a reservation at Central to celebrate my mom's birthday. My brother & wife asked to join us so we called the restaurant to see if they could accommodate us. They said fine but we would need to be done by 9 pm. When we showed up at 7 pm, the hostess chastised us about making sure we were done by 9. Problem is the waitress was slow as they were busy. We were stressed out that we weren't going to be done in time. We didn't receive our check until exactly 9. Should they have seated us and given us this deadline and put it on us to meet or should the staff have done everything they could to get us out in a timely manner Laura

If I'm understanding this correctly, two additional guests were added to the party after the initial reservation was made?


If I'm getting the full story, it sounds as if Central was initially accommodating and reasonable, letting you know it needed the table back after two hours. (In general, the larger the party, the more time it takes people to be served and to eat.) 


Where the restaurant failed was in reminding you -- rudely? coldly? -- that you had 120 minutes and then also delivering turtle-speed service.

My partner and I are trying to choose a restaurant for my birthday dinner in December. I'd love to have a great Japanese meal. We have enjoyed Makoto many times, and we loved the Omakase meal at Sushi Taro recently. Is there another Japanese place that might be up to those standards or should we go back to our old friends? After experiencing the restaurants in Japan, we're looking for equivalently outstanding Japanese food.

Makoto and the restaurant-within-a-restaurant at Sushi Taro remain the city's best Japanese experiences (well, not including dinner at the Japanese ambassador's residence, but I don't think Kenichiro Sasae would be amused by my sending you there).

Hi Tom, for my birthday I always like to just have a nice meal out with friends. They always insist on paying for my meal despite my protests, so I have taken to going to the restaurant and ordering 5 or 6 bottles of wine before they arrive. My question is how should I address tipping in this situation. How much should I tip the person running the transaction and how much additional tip should I add for the server who is pouring for us all night?

What a generous and thoughtful friend you are!


My immediate reaction would be to pre-pay for five bottles of wine and tip 10 or 15 percent on that, in the hope of getting love from the sommelier and/or server throughout the night.


Thoughts from the audience?



Over my years in DC I've found your restaurants suggestion to be terrific. I'm moving out of the area next summer and I'd like to do one special DC thing a month between now and then. If you had to leave the city, where would you make sure that you went before you left?

Based on just one meal there, Rose's Luxury would be on my check-off list.  So would Barmini, Woodberry Kitchen (Baltimore, I know), Bombay Club (man, I love that place), the Dining Room at Palena, Vermilion in Old Town and the bar at Fiola, where I would try to drink my way through Jeff Faile's liquid dreams.

Good day, Tom! My partner has been quite the gent lately and has been splurging on me a whole lot more than usual. Well, I just got a nice little bonus so I figure it's about time I spluge on him for a change. I'm thinking of something in the $150-$200 range (including drinks) where we could have a nice, relaxing, yet adventurous evening. In the District would be best. Thanks!

I've loved my recent dinners at Buck's Fishing & Camping in Upper NW.  And chef Matt Kuhn is doing some fine work at Ardeo + Bardeo in Cleveland Park these days. For something dressier, consider Corduroy across from the convention center.

Hey Tom - maybe you could point out to your editors that they dropped the proofing/copyediting ball AGAIN? This time, the header on the food section says that inside we will find a "First Bite" on Red Rocks in Columbia Heights.

We regret the error, which was fixed online.

Hi Tom! Thanks to your excellent work, I've gained a reputation for choosing fun & delicious spots to catch up with friends. Can you help me out for next Saturday? There are three of us, we're looking to stay in the District, and would prefer somewhere we can hear each other. In the past we've enjoyed Mio, Ris, Againn (RIP), & Oval Room. This time I'm thinking Casa Luca, Mintwood Place, or Del Campo, but am worried about the noise level. Any of those better than the others, or are there other places we should consider? Thank you!

While I like the cooking at all three of your candidates,  none would be considered quiet. Del Campo would be the most comfortable; Mintwood Place  would be the noisiest.


Easier on the ears: Plume in the Jefferson hotel, the Dining Room at Palena in Cleveland Park, 1789 in Georgetown. 

I was surprised to see your comments and review of Chris Edward's work at Salamander Resort. I absolutely loved his food at Patowmack Farm and made it a semi-regular destination. Have you had a chance to go to Patowmack Farm with the new chef? Will I notice any drop-off in food or experience? Thanks!

You weren't the only one surprised to read what I wrote about the menu at Harrimans, the new home for chef Chris Edwards. I was surprised to type them, given my positive experiences with his previous employer


I have yet to return to Patowmack to try the new chef's food.  But I have high hopes for Tarver King, late of the Ashby Inn.

Hi, Tom. I know you get a lot of tipping etiquette questions, but here's another one. My partner and I have begun ordering a third entree wrapped to go after we've finished our meal to share intimately later that night. Should we be tipping the full 20+% on this third part of the bill, or just the usual 10-15% we would usually tip for a takeout order? We've been tipping on the higher range so far but don't want to be insulting the server. Thanks for all you do for your loyal readers!

I know I'm going to catch heat for this, but why not just keep to your 20 percent gratuity on the whole (or maybe just a bit less)?  It's probably just a few bucks more, and I'm all about supporting the support staff as much as I can in these challenging times. That goes for service-friendly cab drivers and others who make our lives easier.

I eagerly anticipated my belated dinner reservation at the Minibar. I was totally underwhelmed. I had dined multiple times at the prior location and at The Bazaar in LA and found this experience to lack creativity. More importantly and to my horror we were seated next to 4 women who were underdressed (fanny packs, polo shorts, hiking boots). Is it to much to ask that to dine at a restaurant with that price point for there to be a dress code? Also, what are your thoughts about the new minibar?

I was not a fan of Minibar after it moved from its original location, BUT I've been eager to go back and see how the restaurant has developed.


Can you be more specific about the lack of creativity you encountered?


As far as dress is concerned, I agree that given the price point and the status of the destination, one expects to see diners better suited for the occasion. 


Dressing up for a meal shows respect both for the restaurant and for fellow guests, most of whom are probably there to celebrate something special.  I'm not talking tuxes and ball gowns; even a pressed white shirt and jacket (for guys) or simple black dress (for women) makes a nice statement.

Hey Tom, why do do you think there aren't better food options in Glover Park? -concerned citizen

I have no idea.  Any chatters want to hazard a guess?


In the past year, I've gone back to places as diverse as Rocklands, Old Europe, Bistrot Lepic and Cafe Divan and found them all lacking. 


My favorite journey to Glover Park these days is the very good Malgudi, below Heritage India.

Dear Tom - I know you do not control this, but can you pass a note on to the powers that be (as we have no access to them - a "contact us" link on the main discussion page would sure be nice). We can't insert line breaks into submissions. Well, we can insert them, but they get stripped for posting. This results in the dreaded "wall of text" effect, making any submission over 3 or 4 lines difficult to read. (Especially when things in all caps are posted. But that I blame on you.)

Consider your request passed along.

Trust me, you're not going to insult the server by tipping on the higher end.

You got that right!

I lived there some years ago to teach English, and it's my favorite cuisine bar none. You must get some ginseng chicken soup (Samgyetang).. god I miss it so much and can't find anyone here that makes it.

Thanks. I'm eager to try the food on its home turf. As you may have noticed, Korean food is making some serious in-roads into modern American cooking.

Tom -- I know that it's small and new, takes no reservations, and has had a lot of buzz, so can you tell me about what time a party of 4 would need to show up at Rose's Luxury to be seated relatively promptly?

I'd say 5:30 -- opening time -- would be a good starting point at the new Hill hot spot.

I'll be in DC for the day today and have a meeting near McPherson Square. Do you (or the other chatters) have recommendations for dinner before I leave town tonight?

Good and under-rated: Siroc.

Tom: I've got a 7 hour layover this weekend in Paris coming back from Africa. I do this trip several times a year and frequently take the RER in for a quick breakfast of cafe and croissants. I'd like to do something a little different this time and branch out from the pastries. Any suggestions on a good cafe or restaurant that serves breakfast? It really needs to be something along the RER B so I can get back to CDG quickly.

Anyone care to chime in?

Hi Tom, My experiences at Buck's have been different from yours (rude owner + uneven service + overpriced food = no thanks) but I accept that you and others love the place. I wish, though, that you'd noted in your gushing review that you're personal friends with Alefantis. Thanks.

I am *not* personal friends with Mr. Alefantis. He and I occasionally travel in the same social circles, and we have many mutual friends, but we don't "hang," so to speak.

Hi Tom, A long time reader - love the chats and recommendations. Two questions - friends coming to visit from Boston and we would like to do Ethiopian one evening - which restaurant in the city would you recommend? Also, if you had to pick between Doi Moi and Le Diplomate which one would you take your out of town guests to? Thanks.

Ethiopic on H St. NE is the best in the city; if you don't mind a drive to Falls Church, Meaza is performing better of late (but not, alas, from the point of service).


Doi Moi and Le Diplomate? Tough call. Both are good, and also very different from one another. But if your guests are from Boston, I think they might find the former to be something diffeent from back home.

Hi Tom, We tried Casa Luca last week based on your recommendation and were a bit disappointed, the food didn't knock our socks off (like Fiola does) and the prices were… well.. "outrageous" to quote one of the members of our party. For example the chickpea octopus appetizer was very small, and had about 4 slices of octopus in it, so we paid about $15 for a tiny bowl of chickpeas (including tax and tip) which was nothing special. There were some OK appetizers, but still very pricey. The pastas were OK, but almost stewy with too much sauce and too little protein or seafood depending on the dish, and they were $25-$28! Then we thought about ordering cheese for dessert and noticed 2 oz cheeses for $10! So if you order 3 cheeses you pay $30! I am not against paying for very good food and ambience, but it was just OK for us in the end, and for my money, I have other options, for example I've had excellent and very memorable pastas at Osteria Elisir which I don't even remember the price of. I think one of the reasons you like Casa Luca is they might be giving you better portions where you might be getting your money's worth, but it simply didn't work for us. By the way, we loved the decor and ambience of Casa Luca, whoever did the redo, the place looks great, and we will go back to hang out at the bar, especially when Jeff Faile is in the house of course (and maybe for happy hour)!

I appreciate your feedback.


Me thinks the prices have been creeping up at what was conceived as a casual alternative to Fiola.

What's good these days? We'll be there over Thanksgiving and need a place for Friday night preferably on or near the downtown mall. We also have some vegetarians in the group. Thanks!

Your best resource is the food site Charlottesville 29 (and I can vouch for BBQ Exchange, which counts some great sides).

I'm going to a conference in Orlando next week. We are staying at one of the resorts near the park but not in it and will not have a car. Are there any good restaurants in the area that are walking distance from the resorts or a short cab ride away? If we decide to eat at the Park one evening, which Park and which restaurant will be the most interesting (and have the best food)?

Orlando, anyone?

Hi there, poster. I know you're frustrated with all the editorial errors in the Post these days. I am, too. (And I'm a professional editor and writer.) But would you mind not sounding quite so cheezed-off in your comments? Like all publications these days, the Post must do more with less. Copy editors are a dying breed (proofreaders are already extinct), and the editorial staff is just doing the best it can with what it has. Just remember that no matter how frustrated you are with the errors, the editorial staff is even more frustrated. A little understanding goes a long way. Thank you!

Honestly, given the demands on this industry, I am often amazed at how much we get right, hour by hour, day by day, year after year.  The newspaper is a daily miracle.


GOD BLESS copy editors, by the way. I'm lucky to work with some of the paper's finest: Jim Webster, Jane Touzalin and Jennifer Abella.  They save me from embarrassment on a regular basis.

But it seems that you know him and he knows you, so no doubt his staff has been told what you look like. Just sayin.

That's fair. I've been working in this town since 2000 ( as the Post's food critic). I'm bound to know some industry folks better than others. I always aim to be cordial, however.

I have a friend arriving by plane tomorrow night. We are meeting for dinner before she meets up with her host, so she will still have her luggage with her. Where would you recommend we have dinner near Dupont Circle? Considerations: we want to catch up (so we'd like to be able to hear each other), we need at least some vegetarian options, not so small/crowded that it will be tough to bring a suitcase in, moderate price range. Thanks! I really enjoy your chats.

My tried and true hangouts in Dupont Circle are the gracious, Greek-themed Mourayo and the delicious American-flavored Urbana. I enjoy Al Tiramisu, too, especially for its fresh fish and pastas, but the seating there puts diners thisclose to one another.

Tom - My wife and I have next Monday off and the kids have school so that means, Lunch Date! Last year we went to the Source and had a great time and we're looking for some place new. Any suggestions? Obviously the place has to be open for lunch, and they have to be open Mondays. Cuisine or price doesn't matter. Bonus points for something instersting that's walkable.....museums, cool neighborhood, shops, etc Thanks!

I presume you want something on the festive side?

Try Blue Duck Tavern (walkable to G'town), the Oval Room (near the White House), Vidalia (take a stroll to Dupont Circle) or Fiola, the last near the Mall and the Newseum.

Two weeks now I've asked a legitimate question, and two weeks you've ignored me. Music at a restaurant can enhance or ruin a dining experience. My husband once offered a manager $20 to turn off the music; he couldn't because it was played at all their restaurants at the same time. Please tell me where the background music is good and where it's not good.

That's such a subjective thing, music. I mean, I love country western and jazz and reaggae and classical, but  not necessary all the time or in certain spaces.


What's your taste in tunes? How loud do you like your music? And live or Memorex? (Thought I'd throw that last question in to humor the boomers.)

Reading this chat reminds me of a personal experience. Sister in Law visited, had lunch in a Chinese place, returned to PA and raved about it. Mother visits a month later and insists she try it based on SIL's review. After we ate I asked if she enjoyed lunch and she responded with "you KNOW I don't like Chinese food." Some days you just can't win. Keep up the great work Tom - your chat is the best entertainment! (I also find your recommendation spot on, but that's another story.)


If you're up for a special splurge, we've dined at Victoria and Albert's several times and loved it (it started out as a once-in-a-lifetime thing...and we've been back four more times). Jiko at the Animal Kingdom Lodge is also really tasty - great appetizers and a huge South African wine selection, plus you can go out onto the savannah to watch the animals if you get there before your reservation.

Thanks for chiming in.

You honestly think Tom has time to answer every single question posted here?

Hey, I aim to answer as many as possible. As I've stated previously, many times, the more detail you can share, and the earlier you post the question, the better I can help out. Some questions involve more than two seconds of thinking or calling around or whatever. 

I like eating tapas from a decent place but hate hate hate ordering them. You have to consider eating preferences, get a balance of heavy/light, hot/cold, meat/veg, whatever. It's excruciating. My best experiences have been to just ask the server to bring out a balanced array of dishes, about 2 per person.

You can also save your tapas eating for when you're dining solo!

Hi, Tom, Any thoughts on Eola? We have loved it whenever we've been there--the food's alway tasty and interesting, great service, altogether a lovely time. Small space. When was the last time you checked them out? have a great time in Seoul!

Um ... Eola closed in August.

I was okay with small plates until I happened to eat at Baby Wale and Bar Charley in quick succession. I found the two places to be similar in many ways, but annoyingly - you couldn't order a whole plate of food at either destination without it being for two! So you have small plates, and huge plates but no regular old...plates? Its a great way to have a dining experience, but a little annoying if you're just hungry.

I'm nodding and smiling. I miss my entrees!

Hi Tom! I'm searching for good restaurants with bartenders that know how to make classic cocktails, but I'm not really looking for a speak-easy type place. My current favorites cocktails are the Aviation, Boulevardier, and Sazerac. Any suggestions in the 14th St area or nearby? Thanks!

Among the best bar tenders on that delicious stretch of the city are the shakers and stirrers at Estadio, 2 Birds 1 Stone, Bar Pilar and Pearl Dive. Over on 18th St. NW, you should check out the liquid pleasures at the young Bar Charley.  

We went to a local restaurant Saturday lunch--recently expanded space and not yet used to it. Had our usual orders--which came out cold. Waitress sent manager over, who comped entire meal, which we found out when we asked for the bill. Sat and discussed this between us when hostess came, cleared plates, asked if we wanted dessert (already told manager we didn't), and generally rushed us. There was no one waiting. There were empty tables. We like this place. We like the beer flights. We are known--manager commented as such. We don't like the "get out of here so I can fill your table again" feeling we got from the hostess. What do we do?

*Gently* share this info with the manager. Tell him you like his place, but you don't like the feeling of being rushed.


Trust me, supervisors want your feedback. No one can afford to lose customers. This is a very competitive scene.

"I like eating tapas from a decent place but hate hate hate ordering them. You have to consider eating preferences, get a balance of heavy/light, hot/cold, meat/veg, whatever. It's excruciating." What this poster describes as "excruciating" is what I enjoy the most about the whole experience -- the idea that you can sample lots of different flavors and textures, and try unusual, adventurous ingredients because if it turns out you don't like it, there's plenty of other food coming. It makes me feel a bit like a kid in a candy store when I open the menu at Jaleo. Different strokes for different folks, I guess...


We just had dinner at Buck's, and the service and the food were great. We had purchased a gift certificate at a fundraiser for Street Sense and, much to our surprise, we were told we could order whatever we wanted, including wine, and it would be totally comped. Talk about generous!


Last week you raved about Newton's Noodles "signature Chorks" and repeated their slogan, no questions asked. You realize they simply buy them from the company that invented them. It wasn't the brainchild of Friedman or anyone else involved with the restaurant, but they would like people to think that, so good job passing on the misinformation.

True. Newton's Noodles did not create the hybrid fork-chopstick. But did you notice I capped "Chork," because it's a registered trademark?

The single most enraging thing I have ordered at any restaurant this year was a $15 trio of bean salads at Casa Luca that could have come straight off of the salad bar at Whole Foods. I love the idea of the $28 bottles of wine, but they seem to be stored and served at about 72 degrees, so I couldn't tell you if the wine I ordered was any good. Once it's that warm, it's completely generic tasting.

Warm red wine bugs me, too. Never hurts to ask for an ice bucket!

Tom, I have to disagree with your suggestion to have tapas when you're eating solo. It takes two to, preferably, four people to be able to order a real variety of tapas, mezze or dim sum. Where's the fun in tasting only two or three plates?

The fun is the chance to focus on just a few, hopefully wonderful flavors -- and knowing it's just my saliva on the plate, the bowl the end of a chopstick.

Any quick tips for St. Louis (downtown area near the Arch?). Thanks!

Here's some advice from last visit there.

Is it open? Their website says coming soon. When will restaurants learn to update their websites! It's 2013!

It is indeed open! Fun spot.

I always go Good Guys great food and entertainment, Tom. Best food in Glover park for over 50 years. You should try it.

Been there, done that. My job takes me to all sorts of interesting places.


I often -- well, SOMEtimes -- wonder how it feels to be the chef at a strip club. Like, does anyone really linger over a Caesar salad or appreciate a nicely grilled steak in those joints?

I am going to Minibar for dinner this Friday for the first time. We're regulars at Barmini (we live close) so we were excited for these reservations. Can the chatter point out any concrete things they were ubderwhelmed by so I don't get my hopes up too much?

Is the original poster with us?

At least you know the Eola poster isn't a plant from industry!!

For sure.

I have generally agreed with your reviews but I cannot understand your love of Vermilion. I've been several times (both before and after the chef changed) can even though I keep hoping for a good experience, I've never had a meal better then okay or service better then average. Is there some special dish or waiter you get?

Huh. I order from the full range of the menu and can't recall getting the same server twice. Not sure if they know me there or not, but I always see people around me smiling and seemingly satisfied.

your link to st louis question near the end goes to newtons noodles

We're fixing it.

As a server in a small plates restaurant I can tell you I very much appreciate it when a table informs me of how they would like their food paced if they have certain expectations. I generally let my tables know that I will be coursing their food by pairing flavors that go together for the courses. As far as requesting all your food at the same time, I would let my table know that I can send the order through all at once if they like but that the food would still come from the kitchen as its ready. Most small plate restaurants don't have a big enough expo window to hold a bunch of plates until the full order is ready. I do try with tables that want their food together to fire the food in such a way that it will land around the same time. It's a fun game of knowing how long each item takes to be prepared versus how busy the kitchen is at the time. But overall I would say communicate with your server what your expectations are so they can accommodate you better.

Thanks for taking the time to share your side of the picture.


Kids, I have to go to lunch. And finish packing. And interview a chef. And ... thanks for a lively hour and see you back here Nov. 20.

In This Chat
Tom Sietsema
Weaned on a beige buffet a la "Fargo" in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. In thinner days, he was a critic for Microsoft Corp.'s and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; and a food reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the '80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section's recipes. That's how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.

He covers the local scene in his Dining, First Bite and Dish columns; keeps tabs on the world at large in his Postcard From Tom column and contributes tasty morsels to the Going Out Guide blog.
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