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

Dec 20, 2017

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at washingtonpost.com/tomsietsema.

You need to dine at a restaurant in disguise before you award or confirm any 3+ star ratings. After 15+ years of reading your column, I've grown to think of you as a trusted and reliable friend who would never steer me wrong. But over the last 18 months, I've increasingly found myself scratching my head trying to reconcile your 3 and 4 star reviews with my experiences. After reading that Washingtonian article, it became clear that we don't eat at the same restaurants. You told me as much when I wrote in to complain about Le Diplomate way back in your June 19 2013 chat ("The Grey Man"), but back then I thought it was me. You did too. Additional visits on my part say It wasn't. A few other starry restaurants haven't lived up to your reviews, although restaurants outside the DC area consistently have. And your Best Food Cities guides rock. You need to dine in disguise, booked from a burner phone or email with a one-use name. Not every time, but at least once when you're awarding major stars. The close-knit nature of DC's fine dining scene makes me believe you're not seeing the reality of some restaurants, and I hate to say that I think your credibility is suffering.

First, thanks for your reasoned  post. I appreciate your taking the time to write and I want to let you (and others) know I share your concerns about any special treatment I might get in restaurants. (For those who haven't seen the story in this month's Washington, detailing how some places deal with reviewers, here's a link.)  

 

Since the piece appeared, I haven't used any of my many email accounts or known phone numbers to make reservations. And I've figured out a few ways to slip into restaurants without staff knowing ahead of time -- no easy task in our uber-wired, hyper-connected world these days.  As always, I take care to see what's going on not just in my orbit, but elsewhere in the restaurant, during my multiple visits to places.

 

I've said it before, but let me repeat it:  It's really important for restaurants to treat everyone more or less the same. (I say "more or less," because regulars of places (not me, but true regulars)  rightly deserve a little extra attention for their repeat patronage.)  Restaurants should also know that giving me extra attention has a way of back-firing.  If I get a baseball-size scoop of caviar on my entree, for instance, you can be sure I'm going to write about the generosity, which readers in turn have every right to expect when *they* order the dish. For starters. 

 

  Back to the original poster: I'm curious to know where you've eaten where our experiences have been dissimilar. Please share (the more detail, the better).  Maybe you should join me on a review, so we can exchange stories? Just a thought.

 

 

Good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining me on this pre-Christmas Wednesday. I'm just back from Barcelona and Lisbon, where I ate amazingly well for the most part but also got food poising twice (in Spain)  coming and going. So "vacation" was not all that restful. happy to be back in the host seat this morning and address your questions and comments.

 

Let's rock and roll. 

No question, just wanted to know you were missed.

I'm raising my coffee mug in your direction. I missed chatting with all of you.

Hi Tom. There are always lots of questions in this chat from people traveling to other cities in the U.S. and around the world. And we've learned that Yelp and TripAdvisor and their ilk are not the best research tools. Can you share a list of critics you trust to follow in other cities? I'm specifically curious about New York and Paris. Happy holidays!

New York has the obvious (and excellent) Pete Wells at the New York Times, as well as Robert Sietsema (distant relation) at Eater New York, whose specialty is foreign cuisine.  In Paris, the source I tend to seek out is former Gourmet scribe Alexander Lobrano, the byline behind "Hungry for Paris and France."  And I wouldn't think of going to Minneapolis or New Orleans without reaching out to Rick Nelson and Brett Anderson, respectively.  Like me, Rick and Brett are proud Minnesotans.

 

How's that for a start?

Enjoyed your piece evaluating chain restaurants. However, I think you forgot one. How about Founding Farmers? That is kind of a chain, isn't it? Where would you slot Founding Farmers in your top 10 rankings?

Founding Farmers is a local chain, not a national one.  As I wrote in the survey, my subjects  were the country's 10 largest (casual, full-service) chains in terms of sales.

Hey Tom, in your experience, what are the underlying qualities/factors that come together to produce a great food city? I am from Miami, FL originally and despite the melting pot of cultures and sufficient disposable income by a good chunk of the population, the food scene just feels.....blah (other than some amaaazing Cuban food). Why do you think that is?

Two years ago, when I sat down to rank the country's top 10 food cities, the characteristics they tended to share included proximity to a large body of water, a number of iconic dishes and a population inclined to drink. Miami sounds like a natural for the list, but abundant good food has not been my experience anywhere in Florida. Part of the problem might be the tourist trade.  And lemmings flitting from one bad Italian restaurant to another.

My sons are coming home the weekend before Christmas and I'd like to take them to Georgetown for dinner. Any suggestions? We can splurge a little, but I don't want to break the bank. Thank you.!

For something cozy and mid-priced in Georgetown, I'm partial to the French-themed Chez Blly Sud. The bistro is intimate; be sure to book in advance.

...looked interesting, but my buddy and I decided to tube it back to Delhi Club in Clarendon, which offered an unlimited, most-excellent lunch buffet at the price of one of Bindass' dishes. A no brainer or did we miss some unknown charms of Bindass?

Apples and oranges there. It's kind of hard to compare upscale street food in the city versus steam table cooking in the burbs. (Did you read my preview? Not to sound snarky, but Bindaas has some gems on its menu.)

Tom, I'm a D.C. resident who was in LA this week for work. Before leaving, I took your advice and met a friend for dinner at Fish in MGM National Harbor. The lobster jambalaya was one of the best things I have ever eaten, and both the hush puppies and Jose's gin & tonic were best in class for what they are. During the week in LA, I took advantage of a free night from work to sit at the bar at Petit Trois. I'm really not one who uses superlatives all that often (seriously) but, again, that omelette! I'm not sure a more perfect one could exist (the service and music playlist were spot on too). All in all, your recs served me well from coast to coast. Thanks, and keep up the great work!

You just made my day. So glad you enjoyed Petit Trois. I have fond memories of my dinner there during my sweep through Los Angeles for the aforementioned best cities project.

Hi Tom, A couple of friends and I recently realized we've now been friends 20 years ago. We met when we entered a graduate school program at Georgetown in 1997. We want to go out to dinner to celebrate this friendship milestone and we thought it would be fun to go to a restaurant that has been open as long as we've been friends. Can you recommend a DC restaurant that opened in 1997 and is still going strong? Thanks!

Congratulations. Are you up for something casual and Ethiopian? Dukem opened in 1997 -- and yes, I had to Google that, since I can barely recall what opened two years ago versus so far back.  ;) Readers, feel free to chime in with any 1997-era alternatives. 

Hello Tom: I know this isn't a big thing in the overall picture of life, but it drives me crazy when servers clear the plates, glasses, silverware of my fellow diners before I've (or others at the table) have finished their meal. Is this considered standard practice in restaurants? Should I say something the next time?

Speak up the next time this happens. Try this: "Could you please wait to clear the dishes until we're all finished? None of us are in any rush tonight."

Hey Tom. I read the Washingtonian article. Though I wasn't surprised at some of the tactics restaurants use to get a good rating from you, I was kinda disgusted because I KNOW that I am not fawned over when I go to Rasika or Le Dip. Here is a way you can fix this problem for all of us (restauranters included): stop hiding. Just come as yourself. Everyone will know it's you -- the diners, the restauranters -- and therefore, everyone will know when the restauranters try to suck up to you. Set yourself free, Tom!

Not sure what you mean by that: Make a reservation in my own name? I'm not sure I'll do that even after I retire.

 

Here's what restaurants SHOULDN'T do: trot over every manager and server for me to "meet," something that happened to me recently at a new establishment.  Or send food I haven't ordered to my table (it always goes on my check, but still.)  Extra attention tends to be more irritating than anything else.

Spoke to a former restaurant owner, no longer in the area, who said they had a photo of you (how?) in the back by the door. I know Phyllis Richman had a variety of hats & disguises. I also know that life happens, chef's leave, people call in sick, servers get unexpected large parties, and there are just some off days.

When Jessica Sidman interviewed me for the story (excellent reporter, by the way, and a fun dining companion), she showed me a few photographs of myself  that had been taken at private events attended by "friends" who obviously passed along the images to restaurants.  That bummed me out a bit. 

Bonefish is one of my all time favs. The crab cakes are probably the best thing on the menu. Growing up in So MD good crab cakes are a gem when you find them. And the au gratin potatoes are also yummy!

I'm a Bonefish fan myself (but the brand wasn't among the 10 that I surveyed).

My husband and I went to the new Masala Art (and the Arena Stage) last week for an all too rare date night. The restaurant is handsome, well-lit and quiet enough during pre-theatre rush hour to have a conversation without shouting. The food and service were both very good. Then we took turns using the individual restrooms before we left. We compared notes as we were walking to the theatre. Our experience at Masala Art was lovely until we found both a toilet and a urinal in each single/unisex restroom. Why? Other than making every single woman look at and smell a urinal - and consequently get grossed out - during an otherwise delightful meal, what purpose does it serve? Last I checked (and I grew up with three brothers) men can do everything they need to do with/in a toilet that they can do with/in a urinal. Why the redundancy? Which brings me to my main question -- how about including a bathroom check with your restaurant reviews? I feel like a visit to a restroom is just as important and telling as the wine list or table service. I've been to too many 'nice' and fairly expensive restaurants with dirty restrooms that might be out of toilet paper or have used paper towels overflowing the waste bin onto the floor. And don't get me started with the automatic sinks that only offer icy cold water or restaurants that did not extend the heating or air conditioning to the bathrooms. I'd rather find out from you than stumble into a mess like that on my big date night out. Let me know if you need help developing a check list or want to hire on an experienced restroom reviewer.

Having on recent occasions left the restrooms of some of the city's most talked-about restaurants to inform staff that their facilities were either dirty or under-stocked (or both), your complaint falls on sympathetic ears. Owners/managers need to assign someone to monitor restrooms every shift and on a regular basis. And it would behoove them to use your detailed check list as a guide. I can't explain the two-urinal situation at Masala Art, but I'll take under consideration your request to mention restroom "features" going forward, (although I have concerns on how to handle the issue gracefully week after week). 

Hi Tom, For the holidays, we like to give my great-uncle a gift certificate to a restaurant. We go out to eat less than we once did, so our choices are sometimes just educated guesses. My great-uncle is kind enough to tell us he enjoys the experience even when he clearly didn't relish the food. But it's obviously nicer when he enjoys both! What would you recommend in the District for an older gentleman who enjoys many kinds of food (except sushi), savors excellent (but not overly familiar) service, prefers less noisy dining rooms, and may have some mobility issues (not a lot of stairs; best if there's a little bit of maneuvering room between tables and restrooms are on main level)? Bonus if the restaurant is friendly to solo diners as well. He really enjoyed Rasika (though found it loud), Garrison, and Georgia Brown's in years past. Thank you!

The first restaurant that pops into my head is the sedate 701 in Penn Quarter, which offers an inviting American menu and pools of space between tables (an important detail, given it's proximity to Cap Hill and other power centers).  Grander is the French-themed Marcel's in the West End, which lets diners compose their own tasting menus.  Both excel in service and come with the bonus of god acoustics. 

For whatever reason, the Post is not letting me comment in the body of this story, so I'll post it here. Thanks for the lighthearted review of the chain restaurants--but I would just like to offer my defense in my family's weekend staple, iHop. For a family with a two-year old who wakes up at 4 am, we are always on the hunt for anything open before 11 (the kiddo--and parents--both take a well-deserved nap at 12). In a past life, I was a foodie eating at Volt and Vermillion, so we like the social activity of eating in public in a setting that knows our ground rules: 1. Bring Coffee FAST 2. We will order just as quickly and 3. We promise to keep our kid entertained and quiet(ish) as long as you bring the check with our food. We've tried all the diners around, and appreciate nicer places that open at 10 (Chadwicks in Old Town), but our neighborhood iHop (7694 Richmond Hwy, Alexandria, VA) is by far the favorite. First--we only order breakfast (come on Tom, fish tacos?!). Second--I find their pancakes perfect (Denny's are too sweet). MOST Importantly--the servers are great. They love our kid, maybe because we come every weekend and tip well, but they understand the rules listed above. Take it from someone who has eaten there more than three times, and tried EVERYTHING on the breakfast menu...iHop deserves a little more respect.

Gotcha. Thanks for writing. While chains are *supposed* to deliver uniform food and service, no matter the location, I couldn't help but notice variations (mostly in decor) when I checked out different branches of a brand. The IHOP  I ate in on all my visits was in Columbia Heights in the District. The Alexandria branch sounds better; I'll make a point to go there. As for the fish tacos I ordered -- along with a ton of other things, you should know -- t's a food critics job to try the range of a menu. 

Just a suggestion -- I love your reviews, but sometimes I want to take out friends who aren't comfortable spending too much on a filling dinner. I love that you give a price range for plates, but could you also add a quick line on how many plates you think an adult would need to order, on average? Sorry I don't have a graceful way of putting it, or I'd be the food writer. I have been having such a tough time Googling variations on "DC restaurants without small plates" since they're so ubiquitous now. I do appreciate smaller portions for Americans, though, but just want to go in aware of what the bill will look like for everyone.

While I sympathize with you, I'd have to be a mind-reader to tag every diner's ideal portion size (or appetite). Personally, I'm partial to "medium"-sized plates, a la restaurants including Hazel in DC.  Your best bet is to go online and peruse a restaurant's menu, to see how the menu is composed (categories/servings per person, etc)

 

SORRY FOR THE DELAY. I had to reboot my computer. Apologies.

I can't believe you went to all ten of those places at least three times each. I'm not a snob, but I just -- wait. Yes, I am a snob, and I just can't! I've been to several of them once, mostly when there have been no other options, but most I would rather not ever again, thank you very much. I'll hit the vending machine at the gas station instead.

Better to eat at Denny's or Cracker Barrel. For real. And I say this, having reviewed vending machine food in the past. 

I recently went to Medium Rare on Barracks Row for a quick work dinner and the music was blaring. When I asked for the music to be turned down I was told no, it was set at a certain level to achieve a "vibe." When a second person in my party asked for the music to be turned down he got the same answer which we found to be ridiculous. We'll be sticking to the Medium Rare in Cleveland Park where the music level is much more muted. What do you make of their refusal to turn the music down?

By the end of today, thousands of people will have read that the steak place on the Hill doesn't care that much about your comfort. (Not to brag, but this is the Post's busiest chat after the esteemed Carolyn Hax.)

Do you ever send a Mystery Reviewer to restaurants? Someone boringly average (like me!) who reports back to you on their experience so you know how the little people are treated?

I have friends and family reporting back to me all the time. Since I know their tastes, I tend to trust them.

I want to second the poster who gave a shout out to the Delhi club in Clarendon! After a recent disappointing trip to the Bombay club (rushed service, bland flavors) I've decided the Delhi club is a cheaper and better tasting dupe to the stuffy and rather stale Bombay

Okay, but we were talking about Bindaas earlier.

Was at Fiola Mare recently- way above my typical dining echelon... What stood out most was the tact and quality of service- movement was crisp, attentive, and well-calibrated- not too warm and familiar (so that we could focus on ourselves), without being cold and distant. What limits that type of talent to the absolute best restaurants? Does it take years of experience for waiters to establish those skills, does it take specific skills to do that, or are restaurants simply limited in how well they can afford to train people before they hit the floor? Guessing it's a combination of a number of things. Not to say we get bad service at the middle tier of establishments, but there's certainly a noticeable gap. Great service really elevates and evening.

Few restaurants in the city come close to delivering the level of service executed not just at Fiola Mare, but *all* of the Trabocchi-branded establishments, Sfoglina and Casa Luca included.  Not easy!  Plus, there's a lot of competition for skilled severs right now.  Somehow, the Trabocchis manage to draw and retain the best.

How much of restaurant performance depends on the chef on duty that night? My experience has been more with casual restaurants, but I have been to places that have rave reviews only to have a mediocre meal at best. I wonder if they are running their A-team that night.

A good chef trains his kitchen colleagues to cook, taste and plate in his style. Again, not easy. Consistency is one of the hardest details for a restaurant to nail.

Do you recommend any fancy dinning restaurants in DC perhaps on the romantic side? I've found it hard to find a semi quiet, dimly lit place, that doesn't try to pack people in like sardines. No budget and love all types of food.

For that kind of experience, your best bet is the hushed Metier, the underground dining room below Kinship near the convention center, with a beautiful and luscious menu created by chef Eric Ziebold.

Good morning, Tom. Not really a question, more of a way to say thank you. I’ve worked in DC’s restaurant industry for about five years, and I will be leaving for Raleigh, NC next month. Since the first time you reviewed one of the restaurants I worked at, I’ve followed your columns and articles. What’s stood out to me is the way you bridge the gap between the industry and the people we serve. You bring humility to those of us in hospitality- you remind us every day that we don’t work for our ego’s sake, we work for the guest. And you always find a way to remind the guest of our humanity, that we can make mistakes and that we are fallible. Both are needed as DC continues to develop its food culture. The industry will always need to be reminded that our names aren’t everything, the experience we bring does. And the city needs to always keep in mind that the industry works hard for them. We care, even when a glass breaks or the food isn’t perfect temperature. In fact, it’s those moments that hurt us most. So all in all, thank you for being an incredible voice for DC on both sides of the pass.

You (sir? ma'am?) just made my week. Thanks for the kind words.  I feel grateful every day to get the chance to cover your amazing industry. (Do I need to check out the dining scene in Raleigh?)

Hi Tom- Should restaurants save a table to be ready at your reservation time, or does making a reservation only put you ahead of walk-ins who show up at the same time as you?

Restaurants should manage their bookings so that reservations are honored, give or take 15 minutes or so, the same amount of time customers have to check in. It's a two-way commitment, in other words.

I realize that this doesn't apply to most people who read your column but...have you ever considered comparing the food at the city's many private clubs: Metropolitan, Georgetown, Cosmos, Press, etc. And the private ones on Capitol Hill for lobbyists staffers and Congressmen? Even if most people can't get in to them (members only), I'm sure many people might be interested in the quality (or lack thereof) of the food and wine served. Also, thanks for constantly plugging Upperline in New Orleans---It is one of my favorite underrated restaurants in any city in the world.

I've thought about reviewing private clubs, as I've reviewed caterers, although I'd have to rely on 1) members getting me in several times and 2) their not broadcasting my presence. Do you think more than a tiny slice of readers would be interested in such, though?

Tom, what chain restaurant surprised you most?

Gosh, there were a number of surprises. I expected to like Outback a lot more than I did, and I was pleasantly surprised with the value/quality at Denny's.  I was definitely not prepared for the travesty known as Buffalo Wild Wings. Nothing there is edible. I couldn't wait to leave. 

 

Texas Roadhouse was new to me. I had to laugh at the time I watched a woman celebrate her birthday. The staff gathered around her, clapping and chanting, and invited her to sit on this saddle on a little trolley, where they broadcast her age: "Happy 45!"  She was livid. Jumping off the saddle, she yelled, "I'm 35! THIRTY FIVE!"

I mean, DC is a political town. THE political town. Definitely worth it. I can get you in one of them as I'm a member...

A vote in favor!

No, most of your readers would not be interested in the quality of the food in private clubs.

And a vote against.

On Friday I'll be meeting up for lunch with an old friend who I haven't seen in at least 15 years. I'm vegetarian (dairy OK) and he describes his palate as "adventurous." Any ideas of a good place to meet where we can hold decent conversation as we catch up (no issues with hearing, but some places are prohibitively loud) and maybe keep it around the $25/pp mark, excluding drinks? Based in Penn Quarter but anywhere between Foggy Bottom and Capitol Hill is probably fine.

You have a number of good candidates in Penn Quarter, including the Middle Eastern small plates purveyor Zaytinya (try to sit to the right hand side of the entrance rather than the main dining room) and the nearby Oyamel for Mexican, where the meatless draws run to guacamole, black bean soup, wild mushroom tacos and sweet potato tamals.

As a frequent diner at and fan of Denny's, I was happy to see it finish so high on your list of chain restaurants. Next time you're there, spring for the upgrade to seasoned fries, which are much better than the oddly-ridged standard fries.

If only I had known! (Thank you.) The churro-shaped potato pieces at Denny's struck me as kind of bizarre.

Hi, Tom -- Thanks for all you do. I for one would love it if you beefed up your Instagram presence a little, especially when you are traveling. Any chance of that happening? Or are you just not that into it?

I fell behind on my recent travels, but I promise to start posting more memories, more often!  One of my New Year's resolutions, actually.

Going to New Orleans for the first time next week. I'm excited to eat there, but here's the catch: everyone in my group of 7 people is a vegetarian except for me (I'm an omnivore but don't really like most seafood). Any suggestions on where we can all have some great meals together? I'm also willing to split off from the group if you have any can't-miss suggestions that are good for solo diners. Thank you!

The restaurant I've been to -- and loved -- that might best accommodate the needs of your group is the Middle Eastern-inspired Shaya.  Two places that you shouldn't missed (on your own at least) in New Orleans are Upperline and Herbsaint, both featured in my city tour from two years ago. It's a shame you don't like "most seafood," by the way; New Orleans has some of the best in the country. 

Tried to leave a positive comment for your fast food story but because this crap web program doesn't work so I will just say here... very funny and well written. I would like to do a story on the top ten things that go wrong with trying to leave a comment but it seems someone made decision to change something and they are sticking with it.

We're aware of the inability of so may readers to comment. I was kicked out of my own story! The template used for the feature is being replaced, if that helps. Thanks for the kind words. 

Hi Tom- I have a complaint (of course) that I hope will reach the restaurant community. Two times this weekend, I made plans to meet up with friends and checked on social media to check hours (particularly in the second case) only to get to the restaurant and find that they were entirely closed for private parties. The second was particularly aggravating, as we were going to see an pr try early showing of Star Wars on Saturday, I had checked the place’s Facebook and website for opening hours only to show up and have it locked down for a private event and nothing else in the neighborhood was open for another half hour! I guess my point is, if you have and use social media, telling the public that you were going to be completely shut down on a Friday night (like in the first instance) for a private event would be an entirely appropriate use of said media. (Both were not “reservation” places). Thank you for all you do to make our lives in DC richer, and have a wonderful holiday and new year!

Thanks for the prompt.

 

Restaurants, you need to cover all your bases when you plan to be closed during usual business hours. Messages need to be left for potential customers on the door, on social media, on your website and on your telephone answering service. 

You gave Cracker Barrel an "A" on the start system you normally use is that equal to 1 or 2 stars? It hard to know what you really think, it looks like your grading on a curve. Thanks to you for all your help over the years. I have had many wonderful meals thanks to you, including a chef's table birthday dinner at ChiKo just two weeks ago.

I chose to use broadly democratic and understandable letter grades as opposed to my usual star ratings for this project, given that chain establishments are so different from independents.  Just as I judge, say, a French bistro against others in its class and cuisine style, I evaluated the chains against one another.  Cracker Barrel got an "A" for its ambience and service as much as for its comfort food.

Not to give away too much information, but I am curious about how you maintain your anonymity when reviewing restaurants. Do you pay for your meals with cash? Do you have numerous credit cards with different names? How do you make reservations when the restaurant can see the telephone number used when you call to make them? Can you shed whatever light you feel comfortable sharing with your loyal readers? Inquiring minds would LOVE to know!!

Yeah, I don't want to reveal too much here, for obvious reasons, but yes, I have credit cards in names other than my own and as of recently, I no longer make many reservations by phone.  As the Washingtonian pointed out, some restaurants keep lists of not just *my* work/home/cell numbers, but those of the people with whom I dine out frequently.

Hi, Tom! What's on your holiday table this year? Any special traditions or something new and exciting you can tell us about? We'll be making the usual buche de noel in a never ending quest to make each more beautiful than the last year's cake. Happy holidays!

I'm hosting about 10 people this Sunday. The spread will be pretty basic: Caesar salad to start, followed by Ina Garten's always-perfect beef tenderloin, slathered with butter and cooked at a high temp; fingerling potatoes with lots of garlic and herbs; something green (thoughts from the audience?); and tea-and-brandy poached pears for dessert, along with these amazing cardamom-pepper pistachios and the cherry liqueur called ginja that I found in Lisbon last week. 

 

And on that note, I bid you all a grand rest of the week and a happy holiday.  Let's do this again next Wednesday, same time. Thanks, all!

In This Chat
Tom Sietsema
Tom Sietsema has been the Washington Post food critic since 2000. In leaner years, he worked for the Microsoft Corporation, where he launched sidewalk.com; the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; the San Francisco Chronicle; and the Milwaukee Journal. A graduate of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, he has also written for Food & Wine, Gourmet, GQ, Travel & Leisure and other national publications. In 2016, he received an award from the James Beard Foundation for his series identifying and rating the "10 Best Food Cities in America" the previous year.
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