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Ask Tom -- Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema discusses the DC dining scene

Aug 24, 2011

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.

MAKING MORE DOUGH: The owner of two of the city’s best-known Italian brands, Obelisk and Two Amys, is expanding his sites with a bakery – across the country in California’s Central Coast.
Peter Pastan calls his future third place to eat, in Lompoc, about an hour north of Santa Barbara, part of his “every-five-year” plan to try something new. The famously droll restaurateur owns a third of the tiny Piedrasassi New Vineland Winery, near which, he says, “there’s no place to have lunch” outside of a few burrito joints.

The target date for the bakery, which will be situated behind the winery’s tasting room, is spring 2012.

Piedrasassi New Vineland Winery, which sits in the shadow of the federal prison that housed a few Watergate conspirators, makes about 1,500 cases of wine a year under two labels, Piedrasassi (syrah) and New Vineland (syrah, viognier, sauvignon blanc, rose and pinot noir). New Vineland wines are sold only at the source.

Pastan hopes to make several kinds of bread, including a Sicilian-style biscuit flavored with grape must and rolled in sesame seeds. He shared the news of his project earlier this week while driving from Tennessee to North Carolina, where he and his wife (she’s one of the two Amys in the pizzeria of the same name) planned to visit a flour mill outside Ashville.

To make the bread-baking worth the effort, Pastan wants to sell his products at two area farmers markets, both of which require bakers to grow their own wheat for certification. Not a problem, since Pastan leases land from a wheat farmer outside Lompoc.

Happy post-earthquake, everyone! Where were you yesterday just before 2 p.m.? I came home to a couple broken plates, a spilled sugar bowl and pictures seemingly hung for a fun house.

Regarding your Sunday review of Todd Gray's Watershed restaurant. I live in the area of NoMa and besides myself, many of the people I know who live in the area including Bllomingdale and Brookland were happy a famous chief was taking the gamble of opening a nice restaurant, not only in a still transitional area but in a hotel. It has been a rocky beginning for the restaurant, including having to change completely the breakfast menu and going without power for three days when it went out about 6 weeks ago. This restaurant isn't in an area where if one restaurant closes, we can walk a half a block and go to another/several other restaurants. Watershed is our only choice. In a two block radius, the choices are McDonalds, 5 Guys, Potbelly's and a few other that close early. Further away but certainly not in walking distance in Big Bear in Bloomingdale and Col Brooks in Brookland which is easily subway accessible. Many of us applaud Todd Gray for his courage to put his reputation on the line for an area that doesn't offer much at night for eating out. My two questions to you, Tom, are, if it wasn't Chief Gray, would you have even reviewed this restaurant? The other is did you think about what a so-so review of Watershed could have on the community that is trying to grow and get started and even on that specific hotel business? Did you ever consider not writing the reveiw for the sake of a higher goal, and maybe having a conversation with Todd Gray to inform him of your review (findings when eating at his restaurant) so he knows where and what should be improved. Then for the sake of many, tell him you would give him a 4 month reprieve to improve and then you would review the restaurant again. Thank you.

Thanks for your thoughtful post.


Having Todd Gray involved in Watershed certainly made the project in NoMa  newsworthy. Would I have reviewed the casual seafood restaurant with a lesser chef's name attached? Probably, at same point.


It wasn't as if I didn't give the business the benefit of the doubt. It set sail April 22. I previewed Watershed (and mostly liked) it May 11. Then, I waited until late August to publish my formal critique, a process proceded by three scattered visits.


I hardly think that's unfair.


What would have been unfair -- to the competition -- would have been my  contacting Mr. Gray in the middle of my lunches and dinners to tell him what I thought needed improvement.  I don't do other restaurants that "favor," so why would I do that for a well-known chef?


Every new restaurant has its challenges; I was unaware of the early power problems at Watershed. That doesn't mean I'm not sympathetic to young businesses; had I known about some enormous obstacle, I might have taken that into consideration.  In my experience with Watershed, though, it was always operating as a normal business and charing full admission.


Thoughts from those who have dined there?


Hi Tom! With all the buzz about Rogue 24's "contract" and the question of elitism in the biz, I wanted to share the experience I had last night at Rogue 24. No, I didn't eat there -- can't afford it. I live just a few blocks away, so when my boyfriend and I were biking back from a dinner in Dupont, we ducked into Bladgen Alley just because I'd wanted to see the place in person. We stopped for just a moment to look through the window when the host opened the door and invited us, two jeans-clad chumps on bikes, in for a tour. He took us around the entire restaurant, up to the "kitchen" (where Chef Cooper was at work), to the back of the house and out again, explaining everything along the way. Several staffpersons greeted us warmly as we passed. I am generally pretty easy-going when it comes to restaurants -- no particular peeves or anything -- but I can definitely say I've not been treated in such a way by many restaurants in which I was a paying customer, much less as a passer-by. I would like to thank Rogue 24 for being so kind and welcoming to two nosy neighbors. I hope they're here to stay!

Welcoming you inside, even if you weren't partaking of "the Journey," is a smart move on the part of Rogue 24. Look at the free (flattering) press it just got!


Regarding Rogue 24's terms:  my Weekend colleague Justin Rude reminds us in today's Dish column that restaurants asking diners to sign off on a few questions ahead of dinner is hardly unique to chef R.J. Cooper's new restaurant.  CityZen, the Inn at Little Washington and Restaurant Eve all have policies that include fees for no-shows.

Hi Tom, I am picking up my sister-in-law and nephew at Union Station on Thursday, right at lunchtime. Is there any place in or around the station for lunch with 2 VERY picky eaters? (Pretty much meat and potatoes) Should we just head to Penn Quarter? The only caveat, my SIL is epileptic, so no neon or patterned lighting please. Thanks so much!

No need to leave the Hill. Nearby, Bistro Bis lists a burger and steak frites on its menu, Johnny's Half Shell includes (excellent) chicken wings and hanger steak on its sea-faring script and The Monocle offers a two-fer:  Mustard-sauced pork chops with a side of Washington history.

So, it sounds like Galileo III is circling the bowl now. This is sad; it was great when it reopened, but went downhill quickly. Do you agree with the sentiment of the restaurant investor at the end of the article that no investor would back another restaurant from Roberto? Unless they wanted to do it just to rub shoulders with a celebrity chef? I love his cooking, but he really needs a business manager.

Did everyone catch Tim Carman's meaty reporting in today's Food section?


There are enough talents out there right now, no investor needs to put money on a less than stellar chef. If  Galileo III  doesn't work out for Mr. Donna, I think his options are very limited. 


What's the culinary equivalent of Box Office Poison?

Tom: Went to Firefly on Saturday night in Dupont. The food was reasonably good (a bit on the expensive side for the fair), but it was insanely loud in there. I could barely hear my co-diner. At one point, we just decided to enjoy our meals in silence instead of following every statement with "what?". The people next to us were yelling to keep above the noise. What can a restaurant do to combat this problem? Is this a case of too many people in too small an area? It did feel a bit cramped.

For as long as I can remember, the otherwise cozy Firefly has also been a noisy place to eat.  Its low ceiling and uncovered wood floor certainly don't help matters.  If  you ever return, my advice would be to dine on the early side of dinner.

The scene: RW lunch at Bibiana. The situation: All three of us were done with our entrees. Two still had a couple bites of food left, but were saving room for dessert. Instead of "are you still working on that" or "are you done with that" or one of those other annoying questions, our server politely asked, "Shall I clear the table?" btw, RW lunch at Bibiana was excellent...these guys do RW right, 6-7 choices per course, beautiful presentation, at no time did you feel like the restaurant was dumbing down to the RW crowds...and at $20 a complete steal!

Bravo, Bibiana!


Your anecdote is the nth complaint I've received this week concerning servers asking diners if they are finished "working" on their meals. Let's hope offending waiters see this post and cease and desist.

Bad clams.

Well, yes, there's that.

It seems like he should be confined to the kitchen as a line chef and not allowed to have any input into daily operations. It is unfortunate for us that his culinary skills are so overshadowed by constant troubles.


Hi Tom. I went to try four new restaurants for restaurant week and only one, the Oval Room, really impressed me and made me want to come back. My question, however, is about what you would have done in relation to the service I had at Sou'Wester. The wait staff was OK, but we never really had one main server. Moreover, the guy who took our order answered my question about wine in quite a strange way. I asked about a wine and he said something along the lines of, "I don't really like it. It's kinda weird." He then offerred to bring a small wine flight so I could try out the three wines I had questions about... while I really appreciated that as a way to help me make a good decision, I am still sort of amazed that he gave an honest, but quite strange answer to my request for a wine description. I didn't ask him if he liked it. I asked him to tell me about it. What would you have done? I was a little dumbounded and either smiled or had a dumbfound look on my face as I waited for him to explain more and then offer to get a sample.

I would rather get a server's honest reaction than have him or her make something up.  In a situation like this, you should have enlisted the help of a sommelier or manager:  "I appreciate your offer, but is there someone available who can elaborate on the wine? I 'd like to know more about it."

Tom!! Please Help! Looking for suggestions in Annapolis. Spending a weekend for my 10 year wedding anniversary. Looking for suggestions for lunches and dinners. All cuisines and price points are welcome. (but one specific splashy dinner suggestion) Thank You!

I've enjoyed O'Learys for surf and Lewnes' for turf over the years, but I haven't dined at either restaurant in two years.


A place insiders speak highly of is Level, a hipster spot featuring small plates (bison satay, garlic risotto, barbecue duck pizza, etc.)


Maybe someone in the crowd can help?

Dupont's got a lively restaurant scene, but if you could only choose between Lauriol Plaza and Bistro Du Coin, which one would you take?

I'd rather visit France than a hybrid of Mexico, Cuba and Spain.

Hi Tom, You get so many negative reports on RW, from both patrons and restaurants, I wanted to share an alternative view. Two years ago, I had to arrange a last minute dinner for a family member who came to town and ended up at Urbana, because they had an open reservation. I had forgotten it was RW! But Urbana opened up its entire menu to the promotion, and we had a tremendous meal with great service. Because of that, it has become one of my regular restaurants in DC - we go often for dinner and brunch, and I recommend it to friends regularly. The food is not on par with the best restaurants in town, but the food and the service have been consistently good. An example where the restaurant week promotion actually produced a regular customer. So I hope restaurants are paying attention and keep it up!

Hear that, restaurants?  It can only help to expand your offerings during Restaurant Week and give diners a taste of what you typically serve.  A round of applause for Urbana (albeit a few years after the fact).

Like the original poster, I want to see successful development in our growing neighborhood. It's why I'm hoping Shaw's Tavern can manage to secure its liquor license. But your job is not to support local businesses, it's to advise diners on where to spend their money.



The review of Watershed is not the review I expected to write after my pretty positive preview ran. But things changed (for me), obviously.

It continues to amaze me that people actually have an opinion about something like this.

I don't get all worked up about the phrase, but I don't like it, either.  It's so much easier (and gracious) for a server to ask, "May I clear your plate?"

Tom, first time that I have written in to you but I saw something at dinner last night that truely requires that I write to you. My husband and I were having dinner on the patio at Bibana last night, during our dinner the street got shut down, and we were engulfed by firetrucks, shortly thereafter a manager from Bibiana walks out side and started giving ice cream to all of the firefighters, quite a sight as you can imagine, I think the firefighters were as surprised as we were. Dinner was really good, but I will remember that act of kindness for sometime. We should all do things like that once in awhile.

This seems to be your day, Bibiana. (Never hurts to be nice to emergency crews!)

Hi Tom - If you had to eat dinner in Bethesda this weekend which restaurants would you consider? Any type of food works, thanks!

Redwood? Food, Wine & Co.? Bistro Provence (if someone was treating me)?

Chart House for more upscale and on the water dining; Boatyard Bar and Grill for a casual true Annapolis experience (lunch?); Lemongrass for Thai; Crush for wine and small plates.

Thanks for the suggestions. I've only been to Chart House for drinks (the food, frankly, didn't look all that appealing).

I have recently hearing a lot of positive vibes about the food/dining scene in Portland. My wife and I are planning on making a trip to the Northwest and have been debating whether to go to Portlanda or Seattle. Which city do you think has the best food/dining scene in the Northwest? Thanks!

I adore both cities, but I was most recently in Portland, where I was dazzled by the Thai street fare at Pok Pok and the modern Austrian-German cooking at Gruner, among other hot spots. Portland has the advantage of having a major wine region close by, too, if that helps.

Two of the past three times I've ordered Ceaser's salad at DC restaurants, the anchovies - advertised as an ingredient - were missing. Both times I had to ask specifically for them; one response was "people don't like them, so we put them in only if people ask for them". Have you come across this kind of thinking? It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.

Yep, I've heard about missing anchovies (which I love , anchovies). 


One of the best Caesar salads around is the one tossed tableside at Majestic in Old Town. It does not stint on the pungent fish (or garlic or hot sauce or egg or ...)

Hi Tom, As an Istanbul born long term Washingtonian foodie (yeah, I love that term too) I want to congratulate you on the article. As a matter of fact, I recently returned from Istanbul and have been to most of the places you've been (without the guided tour), and stumbled upon the same book on one of the backstreets of Beyoglu. Thanks for covering "the city that never stops eating" (my own tag) in a proper way! P.S. When I crave for that kind of food, my two favorite places to go in DC are Cava and Agora.

Ah, thanks for the kind words. I fell in love with Istanbul thanks to Istanbul Eats, my guide to the hidden treasures of the ancient-yet-modern city.



It's worth a trip to Annapolis for Sunday brunch at Harry Browne on State Circle as well as having dinner there. Good food and wonderful service in a very pleasant setting. I'm about due for a return trip there.

Another capitol idea. Thanks.

Hey Tom, You have never lead me wrong before - I have a cousin coming in town tomorrow with her 17 year-old daughter and friend to check out some colleges. I'd love to take them out to dinner someplace awesome. It doesn't have to be expensive, just something with a fun and cool vibe. I was thinking Surfside or maybe BGR in Bethesda, but wanted to see if you have any recomendations for something casual, hip, and fun. Any thoughts? Thanks!

If hip and fun are part of the equation, I nominate Ripple for modern American fare in Cleveland Park and Raku for pan-Asian in Bethesda.

If your special someone wanted to take you out for a romantic b-day steak dinner followed by drinks with nice atmosphere...where would you want to be taken??

Fantasy time! Probably J & G Steakhouse for a dry-aged porterhouse followed by cocktails at Fiola in Penn Quarter or Cashion's Eat Place in Adams Morgan.  Psst:  The French Riviera ($12) at the latter is my new favorite. 

How many times is too many? I was dining at Artie's last night with my husband and maybe soon-to-be boss. We had a conversation about what he would be doing, compensation, benefits- the whole nine yards. Our server came around at least 3-4 times asking whether she could clear the plates. I cringed every time I saw her coming and instinctively held on to my plate. Servers- please read a table, just because I am not shoveling my food doesn't mean I am done. Thanks for letting me vent.

This has been a hot topic in recent chats.


The solution boils down to waiters who are able to "read" (or assess) what's going on at a table and deliver (or withhold) service in response.  In fairness, some waiters have responded that their bosses require them to "touch the table" at certain points during the meal, or clear dirty plates pronto, etc.

Tom, I am one of those federal employees who's building is closed. I have the rare pleasure of choosing between the Lobster Roll truck or Well-Dressed Burrito. Which one should I choose?

Tough choice!  Today, I'm feeling love for lobstah, though.

Hi, Tom. If you were heading to happy hour in Logan Circle tonight for a birthday cocktail (or maybe beer), where would you go? Good quality drinks more important than the food, but not exhorbitantly priced, please. Thanks!

I'd make a beeline for Estadio, Cork Wine Bar or Bar Pilar, all different from one another but all fun in their own way. 

I'd tend to agree re: Charthouse, but it seems to stay popular somehow.

Views and drinks = crowds.

Hold on, the waiter gave you a description and offered you a taste and this is a problem? The finickiness of people is amazing.

Well, sure, but the diner was looking for some verbal guidance, which the waiter was unable to provide.

Hi Tom -- after hearing your praise for Rasika, my partner and I finally had the opportunity to dine there this past weekend. Oh what heavenly meal - I can't believe it took us so long to try it. Other than the fact it kept us off limits to each other for a couple of days, it was truly one of the best evenings I have ever had. We will certainly be back again and again. Thanks again for your hearty recommendation! Ciao!

"Off limits to each other" because ....?

Last week, a colleague and I dined at B. Smith's. She ordered the restaurant week menu while I didn't, but we both ordered the fried green tomato appetizer. When the appetizers arrived, the waiter said, "restaurant week tomatoes" as he set down her plate and "regular tomatoes" to me. Her plate had 2 slices while mine had 3. I thought it was odd that they changed the portion size and then commented about it.

Interesting. And rather short-sighted on the part of B. Smith's.

Is only as easy as the customers sitting at it. People don't all have the same expectations or understandings about dining etiquette. On more than one occasion, for example, I've had a dinner companion with an open menu on their lap loudly complain about having to wait for somebody to take their order. Whose fault is that?

One of the cool things about knowing etiquette is that it makes for a more satisfying and smooother experience for all involved. In this case, a closed menu would signal to the server "I'm ready to order."

Speaking of Bistro du Coin, where in the area do you think has the best sweetbreads? I know I'm weird, but I love them :)

If you're weird, I'm weird. I LOVE sweetbreads. Cashion's Eat Place does well by the organ meat. So does the bistro at Restaurant Eve.  Any offal I'm missing, gang?

How long had you been at the table with food untouched? There is leisurely dining and then there is table-hogging. If s/he was on you every second you set your fork down then shame on him/her. If your discussion of "the whole nine yards" was holding up potential diners for a significant period of time, then perhaps you should have had gotten yourselves a meeting room.

I wasn't there to see how long the party occupied the table, but people go to restaurants for all sorts of reasons and it helps (staff) to know diners' intentions. The "boss"  holding court at Artie's, for instance, could have requested an out-of-the-way table, or let the server know they'd be conducting business: provide some helpful clue as to how the staff should approach the group.

I've never had anything but the best service at Artie's--or at any of the Great American Restaurants, for that matter. Your server must have been very new. Artie's is my go to restaurant for special occasions--and I live in Olney, so it's quite a trek!

I'm a fan of the Great American Restaurant as well.

I know everybody is waiting for some downtown ramen place to open, but what about Ren's Ramen in Wheaton? We went and found it delicious.

Count (and my pooch!) me a fan. So simple. So spare. So special.

I was hosting a dinner for eight three weeks ago. I called and made reservations at one of Dc' top restaurants. they wanted me to quarantee the reservation with a credit card. I gave them my Black Amex. So fast forward dinner goes off great. Bill with tip i rounded off to a nice $5K even. Every one is happy. Billion dollar business deal closed. I check my Amex statement and notice two charges from this restaurant. One for the $5k and another I alter find out is their cancellation fee. I call ask to speak to manager anfd figure simple mistake and I should be able to get this corrected in a few minutes. But no. Manager gives me a bunch of grief and insists we enver showed up. I say how could I have not shown up and dropped $5K in your establishment. More discussion. No resolution. I call Amex and because of how I was treated I dispute both charges. Amex settles the dispute in my favor and refuses to pay either charge. I do enough business with Amex that they couldnt afford to lose me. I may call the restaurant and have them resumbit the $5K tab some day if they apologize for their rudeness and mistake. So far they havent. Their loss.

Wow. Wow.


Can you send me the name of the restaurant (and the manager you dealt with)? That's unbelievably poor service. Not sure how Amex can refuse to pay the dinner bill, though?

Normally, I *hate* when waiters fill our wine glasses from our bottle when it's just my husband and I - we drink different amounts and prefer to portion it out ourselves. But, recently I hosted a work dinner and ordered a couple bottles of wine, the waiter never came around to fill the glasses and everyone felt too awkward to ask for the wine (only a few people could reach it themselves). I had to keep passing it around myself. It would have been so much smoother to have the waiter take care of it! (also, following up on the anchovies - my uncle-in-law having a fit at a restaurant because the cesar salad did not contain anchovies is now a family legend)

See how challenging it is for waiters? Some people hate to have their wine glasses filled for them, others are upset when a server is more of a pourer. In the cae of this business meal, though, it sounds as if the server wasn't paying sufficient attention.

Writing as a restaurant manager to address a couple of things from a chat or two ago. Yes, people make reservations and do not show up. No call, no show. Parties of 2 or 12-doesn't seem to matter. Yes, we ask for a credit card to try to encourage a phone call to cancel! We may in August, as slow as it is, make staffing decisions daily-possibly per shift. Be considerate. Cancel! Also, Restaurant Week...multiple groups made several reservations under different names on the same day. Just to ensure a table as SOME point. Then let us know at the door before being seated for one of them! Ummm...rude? Yes. We were booked solid and those slots could have gone to someone else. With the way the business is now, restaurants are doing everything they can to maximize all dining opportunities. It would be great if the patrons could think about these things before just bashing every single thing at every opportunity.

People who make multiple reservations at different restaurants and don't bother to cancel ahead of time ought to be  .... quick, what would the appropriate punishment be?

Let's not go overboard with praise for them. Their little quirk of "Are you finished enjoying that" rather than "Can I clear your plate" is annoying. And the team service is good in some ways, bad in others -- bad in that it does tend to lead to multiple people stopping by asking if I'm done enjoying my food.

I was asked at a restaurant recently: "Is everything fabulous?" (Grrr.)



We were in and out (party of 3, with desserts) in less than 2 hours. I didn't think we lingered for very long, but maybe our body language suggested a more speedy dinner.

Tanks for the detail. Two hours for a party your size is not camping out.

Vidalia! They have the most amazing Sweetbreads & Waffles dish! They just had some big write up about it in an NYC publication so others must agree!



(Sound of food critic slapping self on forehead for overlooking such a terrific version.)

That's okay at Hamburger Mary's; less so elsewhere.

Except that at Hamburger Mary's, nothing (well, nothing on the menu) was ever "fabulous."

Funny story: Any time I order sweetbreads, I get an explanation from waiters on what it is (and what it is not) or a raised eye brow. Maybe it's because I am a woman in her 30s and I love organ meats. Sometimes I get the same treatment when I order a dark beer or scotch. Makes me laugh!

"It's not a dessert," one server explained to me.

I think you glossed over the manager's lament. These people made multiple reservations at HIS restaurant and then decided what time to go to dinner later! Bob made a 5pm, Bill made a 6pm, Jill a 7pm, for example. That's ... that should result in the OWNER spitting in their food rather than the chef.

OOPS, sorry about speeding through that lament.

Still: boorish behavior.


should be required to ... be a server during RW.

GOOD idea!

Shouldn't it be "May I clean your plate?" Of course the server CAN remove the plate unless you fight him/her for it. I'm appalled at the people who use CAN when they mean MAY (don't get me started on fewer/less!).

Spoken like a true copy editor (except, I think you meant to type clear rather than clean).

"People who make multiple reservations at different restaurants and don't bother to cancel ahead of time ought to be .... quick, what would the appropriate punishment be?" Bad clams

"Bad clams." Again.

Really? Where is that? I thought the poster was from Northern Massachusetts and I couldn't figure out why you did a review of a restaurant there. It wasn't until I kept reading that I realized he/she was local!

Uh, you're kidding, right?

We'd like to go to a new, top-notch restaurant. Between America Eats Tavern and Rogue 24, what is your recommendation? What is the most interesting option?

They are two very different dining experiences. It depends on what you're after: An edible history lesson? A culinary circus?

Can we please stop talking about Roberto Donna? He's clearly a good cook but a poor businessman, and not smart enough to recognize that and get someone else to run his business. Period. There are so many talented and smart chefs and business people in our city now. Let's talk about them.

And so we will. Next week.


Thanks for joining me, everyone. I'm off to lunch. See you next Wednesday, same time.

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 sidewalk.com 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 and keeps tabs on the world at large in his Postcard From Tom. His video series, Tom Sietsema's TV Dinners, pulls back the curtain on a critic's life -- in and out of the dining room.
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