Virtual Gourmet

  February 7, 2016                                                                                             NEWSLETTER


Menu from Sugie's Original Tropics, Beverly Hills, CA, 1942



Part One

By John Mariani


By John Mariani


By Brian Freedman


Part One

By John Mariani

Apples at Standard Foods, Raleigh. Photo by John Mariani

    It is a very big mistake to think that any major city in America, even New Orleans, has been immune to global and ethnic culinary influences.  So, while the local, home-style food of a city might quite reasonably be its primary appeal—Tex-Mex in Houston, chowders in Boston, and cheesesteaks in Philly—visitors would miss a great deal by not being open to the variety of foods and restaurants now to be found in a Southern city like Raleigh, North Carolina.


100 Woodland Pond Drive, Cary, NC

    Next week, I’ll write about some of those down-home options, but this week I’d like to focus on the more contemporary food scene, beginning with a restaurant of daunting excellence in a resort, The Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary, NC, that ranks with the finest in America.  As well it should: Spread over 12 acres of landscaped woods and river, the resort was built by local philanthropist and art collector Ann Goodnight, whose husband, Jim, made a fortune as founder of analytics software giant SAS.
    As you drive onto the Umstead’s property, you immediately recognize that not one square inch of the land or hotel was neglected, from the extraordinary artwork Mrs. Goodnight installed throughout the hotel to the 14,000-square-foot state-of-the-art Spa.  The exterior limestone, from quarries in Texas, blends into the surroundings, and the beautiful interior woodwork is of the highest quality, as is every stitch of linen, every bathroom amenity, and every business traveler’s need in the spacious rooms that look out over the greenery and flowing water.
    Artist Dale Chihuly did a glass sculpture (above) for the hotel named Ardea, meaning a heron, which echoes the name of the resort’s elegant Herons restaurant.  Executive Chef Steven Greene and Chef de Cuisine Spencer Thomson, both previously from Greenville, SC, have worked hard to earn just about every top hospitality award from the media, and I happily chime in with more kudos.
    The dining room has perfect romantic lighting, genial table spacing, a civilized sound level and a sophisticated service staff that would easily fit in just as well in New York or London.  My wife and I enjoyed two different tasting menus and, while I mentioned to Chef Greene that some of his dishes were in need of editing—canapés on billowing dry ice, too many ingredients on a plate of scallops with cauliflower custard, carbonized bamboo, tapioca and black rice—the overall quality was on a par with the best in America right now, beginning with various textures of beets with pistachio, a touch of trout roe, purple sorrel and goat’s milk.  White chocolate was a surprisingly good addition to a dish of chestnuts with quince, bacon, brown butter and crème fraîche, and sea bass was impeccably cooked, served with carrots, vaouvan-spiced curry, tender Littleneck clams and citrus-scented kasha. 
    These and many other courses were matched with excellent selections of wines, from a Viognier with the chestnut dish to a Spätburgunder with the sea bass.  Desserts were showy but superbly rendered, including a crèmeux of milk chocolate, kalamansi, green tea chiffon and cocoa pearls, as were the end-of-the-meal mignardises. Herons matches everything else of quality at the Umstead but stands as a culinary beacon in the entire region, a restaurant of great generosity and elegant proof of fine dining’s enduring pleasures.

Herons is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.


205 East Franklin Street

    Standard Foods pretends to no such luxury as The Umstead but happily represents the seriousness of modern cooking under an impressive chef who relies on the quality of local ingredients, which are also sold right on the premises, including a butcher shop: baskets of local fruits and an array of Southern products from un-homogenized milk and cheeses to burlap bags of stoneground grits and honey from a local apiary.
     The premises are bisected, with the dining room (right) to the left. When I was there the noise level was deafening, but I’m told that some re-designing has ameliorated this drawback. It’s a very casual place, lots of wood on ceilings and tables, with a cement floor and an open kitchen to the rear.  Best thing to do is order family style. Chef-owner Scott Crawford, former chef at Herons and before that at The Cloisters in Sea Island, GA,  along with  Chef de Cuisine Bret Edlund present such exquisitely beautiful dishes it would be a crime not to share them with your friends, fork by fork, spoon by spoon.
                                                                                                Photo by Jessica Crawford

    Menus change depending on season and availability, but I hope they will always serve the savory-sweet apple soup (right) with smoked brown butter, peanuts and a sprinkling of rosemary  ($19);  a dish of rabbit and light dumplings with sweet potato, green apple and a tinge of tarragon ($14) sums up what modern Southern cuisine is all about. You can order a butcher’s board of charcuterie ($18), complete with housemade lardo, and don’t fail to get the Parmesan grits with wild mushrooms, squash and hazelnuts ($20), a large plate to share.
    Flavors of fennel, radish and a sorrel vinaigrette enhanced fine quality swordfish ($24), and of course there’s good pork here, with white beans, sausage and apple mustard ($26).  I’m afraid the grass-fed beef  just doesn’t make for fat-rich eating, though it’s helped in the dining room by smoked onion, sunchoke tots and marrow butter ($26).
    We loved the caramel rum cake with goat’s cheese and crème fraîche sherbet ($10), as well as the chocolate brioche with pecan butter, hot chocolate and soft cream ($12), one of those desserts never to be improved upon.
    Standard Foods’ wine list is notable for its selectivity and how the bottlings match Crawford’s cooking: hearty, meaty, with good acids, overseen by consultant Fred Dexheimer.
    This is Raleigh's hot spot right now, jammed from Day One, and for all the right reasons of good honest food, wine, and conviviality.

Standard Foods is open for lunch and dinner Tues.-Sat.


222 South Blount Street

    Bida Manda is yet another facet of contemporary dining in Raleigh, and yet another American Dream come true. Owners Vansana and Vanvisa Nolintha (left), along with Chef Lon Bounsanga, are from Laos, and the name Bida Manda describes “the Sanskrit ceremonial term for father and mother,” in honor of the Nolinthas’ parents.
    The two-room downtown eatery has become a very popular spot in Raleigh, not least because of the owners’ own amiable hospitality.  Laotian food is just not easy to find made this well anywhere I know of, for there are few contenders elsewhere in or out of the South.
    The two-sided menu offers appetizers enough for a whole meal—crispy rice lettuce wrap ($7.90), tom ka kai chicken soup with galangal and coconut ($5.90), and wonderfully crisp spring rolls filled with either ground pork or minced vegetables ($7.90). The star among main courses is the crispy pork belly soup called mee ka tee ($10.90), teeming with peanuts, vegetables and rice noodles with tantalizing seasonings.  Chicken curry, kali kai mae amphone ($8.90), combines generous cuts of chicken with root vegetables and aromatic jasmine rice, while thum mak houng is a green papaya salad that accompanies a flatiron streak ($10.90) or grilled chicken with lemongrass ($8.90).
    To say that one meal here will addict you to this kind of food is an easy assertion, and I can’t imagine not dining at Bida Manda at least once a week were I in Raleigh, not least because the prices are so modest but also because the excitement level is so high, and the owners are so intent on both pleasing and educating you in the sweetest possible way.

Bida Manda is open for lunch Mon.-Fri., for dinner nightly.


By John Mariani

Blue Fin
W Hotel
1567 Broadway (near 48th Street)


    It’s easy enough to understand why some people might consider the ideal restaurant to be small, owned by the chef, and never varying or expanding.  I, too, love that ideal, but only as part of a grander view of modern gastronomy wherein many of the brightest concepts come from restaurant companies with many units throughout a city, a country, even across continents.  Companies like Union Square Hospitality, Myriad Restaurant Group, Patina Group, and BR Guest Hospitality run exciting, often spectacular, restaurants in NYC, many considered to be in the top tier and all created with enormous effort and financial risk.  (They also tend to be seriously devoted to food-based charities in the city.)
    BR Guest Hospitality runs 25 restaurants, most in NYC, including the highly popular and well-regarded Blue Water Grill, Strip House, Atlantic Grill, and Blue Fin, newly re-opened at the W Hotel in Times Square.  With that kind of buying clout in the market, they can claim dibs on what’s best on a daily basis, and that quality of ingredients shows throughout the menu at Blue Fin.
    The two-story restaurant has been wholly re-designed and it’s a dazzler, from the downstairs sushi bar bordered by a suspended staircase and wavy mural to the spacious main dining room upstairs done in wide expanses of polished wood, mirrors, and hanging bare lights. It’s casual but New York casual, and there seem just as many locals dining here as tourists.
     The large service staff is well trained—they have to deal with a lot of pre-theater pressure—and know the menu cold.  The wine and sake list, overseen by Beverage Director Richard Breitkreutz, has breadth and depth, with a focus on the mid-price range. There are many choices by the glass for $11, and the “Sommelier’s Selection” has an admirable number of bottles under $50, though mark-ups are not so modest. A barrel-fermented 2014 white Rioja from Bodegas Mura runs $48 here, but only $16 at a wine store.
      Executive Sushi Chef Boo "Mike" Lim, formerly of the highly regarded Sushi of Gari, and Executive Chef Juan Carlos Ortega, now with  BR Guest for two decades, provide menus rich enough in every category without going overboard.  There are ten or so sashimi items offered nightly, at $3 to $8 per piece, and a six-piece sampler of dressed sushi at $28, which I recommend as a large starter. The generous sushi rolls ($12-$16) include the delicious “Times Square” ($15) roll of crab, spicy hamachi, mango, avocado, and yuzu-miso. All the raw seafood is of pristine quality, and the dressed varieties (left) hold more interest, like kampachi with chile and seaweed, the tuna with avocado and ponzu, and eel with grilled pineapple and kojujang, a Korean sweet fermented rice condiment like ketchup.  I also highly recommend the charred octopus with smoked paprika, olive oil potatoes and romesco sauce as a fine appetizer ($19).

    When you get to the entrees, there is a shift away from Asian flavors in a hearty dish like the lobster pot pie ($35), a kind of American bouillabaisse with mussels, shrimp, and a ruddy, garlic-rich rouille.  There is a simply grilled section of dishes, served with lettuce and lemon potatoes, and the night’s catch was superbly textured, very juicy branzino  (market price).  There was plenty of sweet jumbo lump crabmeat atop a fine red snapper ($35), along with sautéed hen of the woods mushrooms and watercress.
Companies like BR Guest are aimed at big eaters and large portions, so the warm apple crostata with dulce de leche and vanilla ice cream ($11), the flourless chocolate layer cake with white chocolate peppermint candy ice cream ($11), and the caramel pear pecan sundae with cinnamon-spiced ice cream ($10)—all ice creams are housemade—are desserts easy for two to share.   They even offer “Theater Treats to Go” ($8), a box of warm chocolate chip cookies or caramel popcorn to stave off hunger during the third hour of “Les Misérables” or “Hamilton.”
    On a post-snowstorm night the upstairs room at Blue Fin was crowded by nine o’clock, but, despite all the wooden surfaces, the decibel level did nothing to compromise our conversation—one of those details that must have gone into the re-design. 
    Blue Fin belongs right where it is in the Times Square nexus, where, when you leave and see the eye-popping video displays and flashing lights of Broadway, you’ll know that your dinner had been just as much a part of the dazzle as the rush of the crowd and the sweet cacophony of the Big Apple.

Blue Fin is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.



By Brian Freedman 

    Much of my childhood was defined by the wines of Louis M. Martini Winery and the music of Queen. With both of them, I had no idea, until relatively later in life, how seminal each of them was to their respective industries. I won’t belabor the importance of Freddy Mercury here, but it’s fair to say that popular music as we now know it would be far different if it were not for classics like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Killer Queen” and the rest.
    The same can be said for Louis M. Martini when considering the wines of California, and, indeed, the wine industry of America as a whole. Because the trajectory of the company, from its origins more than eight decades ago up to the excellent current releases, is as emblematic of the evolution of American wine as that of any in the nation.This past autumn, I had the opportunity to immerse myself in Martini as part of a trip sponsored by Gallo, Martini’s owner. We also focused on other notable properties in Napa and Sonoma, including MacMurray Estate Vineyards, J Vineyards & Winery, and William Hill Estate Winery, which I’ll cover in detail in a future Virtual Gourmet. Martini in particular, however, is a fascinating producer to start with, since, as it approaches its 85th year, it is absolutely as strong as ever, with tremendous expressiveness, terroir specificity, and value among its stable of wines, regardless of price point. I drink them regularly to this day.
    They’ve had years to figure things out. Louis M. Martini (above, with his son Louis P. Martini), at twelve years old,  came with his father from Genoa to San Francisco, and what started in 1906 as home winemaking evolved into a producer of sacramental wine and concentrate during the dark years of Prohibition, finally culminating in the construction of the eponymous winery in St. Helena in 1933. All of these changes and growth have resulted in a brand with significant name recognition, ownership of one of the great Cabernet vineyards on the planet, and a list of wines that, vintage after vintage, are worth seeking out.  Martini has always been synonymous with Cabernet Sauvignon, and its Napa and Alexander Valley bottlings are among the most widely known. Tasting them side by side is always a fascinating exercise, and often throws into sharp relief the fallacy of believing that the conditions of a particular vintage manifest themselves in stylistically similar expressions from one appellation to another.
    The 2012s are a great example. The Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon starts off subtly, with aromas of baking spice, vanilla and plum leading to a palate of boysenberry, blackberry and mulberry, perfumed with cedar and cut through with excellent acidity. The Alexander Valley, by comparison, lifts from the glass with black cherry, cassis, blueberry and plum, all spiced with cinnamon and clove, the flavors anchored by a great core of cassis framed by mineral, licorice, cedar, and tobacco. It’s concentrated and fresh all at once, and while both of these bottlings will benefit from a few years in the cellar, they are immensely enjoyable right now.
    The 2013 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon starts off with scents of cassis, toast, and an unexpected hint of meatiness and bay leaf. Rich, well-integrated tannins frame chocolate, graphite, blackberry and warm vanilla, the balance of sweet fruit and structure immediately appealing.
    Going up in price and down in production numbers is the Lot 1 Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that, according to Martini, is designed to capture “the essence of Napa Valley’s distinctive terroir.” The fruit comes from top sites in Napa, including Atlas Peak (Stagecoach Vineyard), Stags Leap, the Silverado Bench, Spring Mountain and more. The 2012 is utterly classic, with black currants and licorice, mineral and chocolate on the nose and opulent, silky flavors of chocolate, blackberry fruit and rich cigar tobacco. It’s delicious now, and will continue to evolve for another decade or more. For a point of comparison, we also tasted the 2005 Lot 1 Cabernet Sauvignon, which has, in the nearly 11 years since the grapes were harvested, turned into a gorgeously mature wine singing with aromatically complex led pencil, sandalwood and cedar, sweet fruit, peppercorn, vanilla and dusty, beautiful tannins.
    Martini also crafts an excellent Meritage, and its 2012 Cellar No. 254 Napa Valley is a charmer: Spicy, savory, cherry fruit aromatics find a consistent counterpart on the palate, with added flavors of cocoa powder and an excellent tannic structure. The 2012 Cellar No. 254 Petite Sirah is also a success, a sweetly fruited, concentrated and generous offering of chocolate, blueberry coulis and a hint of dried mushroom on the tongue.
    The ostensible jewel in the Martini crown, however, is Monte Rosso Vineyard (above and left), so named for its Red Hill Loam soils that Cabernet does so well in. (So, too, do other grape varieties, including a block of 110-year-old Semillon vines, though it’s the Cab that garners the lion’s share of attention.) It’s been under the ownership of Martini since 1938, and the results of the family’s work on it are stunning. The 2011 Monte Rosso Cabernet Sauvignon was fresh with lovely herb notes of rosemary and laurel, as well as plenty of red plums and currants. The 2010 is also quite fresh, yet here it speaks of raspberry, mineral and a smoky note to the rich hints of spice and leather. Gong back another five years, the 2005 is a perfectly balanced bottling with brambly fruit, sage and mineral bumping up against cherry, baker’s chocolate and sandalwood. It’s amazingly lithe for 11 years old, but that seems to be a theme with these Monte Rosso Cabernets—their ability to evolve yet still remain vibrant, which is a testament to the land itself and to the respectful winemaking of the team.
    Monte Rosso also is home to a range of other grape varieties, which are more than worth seeking out. The 2013 Malbec is all spicy chocolate and savoriness on the nose, with a palate of sweet, dark cherry fruit, kirsch-filled chocolate and mineral; and the 2012 Gnarly Vine Zinfandel, an old-vines bottling (some of which are older than 125 years) of power and structure, is downright hedonistic, with sappy blueberry and blackberry, as well as black peppercorn spice punching up the velvety texture. The 2012 Monte Rosso Mountain Red, a blend of Zinfandel, Syrah and Petite Sirah, is sweet-souled and giving, with dark cherry and a wildly appealing spicy plum note coming through the plushly textured palate.
    Approaching its centenary, then, the Louis M. Martini Winery is very much at the top of its game, leveraging more than eight decades of work, its historical know-how, and Gallo’s ability to facilitate any and all necessary changes to allow the team there to craft wines that speak to the appellations from which they come and the (often quite historically significant) soils in which the vines are grown. If that’s not a recipe for continued success, then I’m not sure what would be. Turns out my youthful wine drinking was far more significant than I realized back then. I certainly do now.



“Why do chefs love cacio e pepe, that ancient alchemy of sharp cheese, black pepper, olive oil, and pasta plus cooking water? `It has all the elements that make something taste good,’ says Dave Chang, better known for interpretive ramen than cucina povera. `Spice, salt, umami, dairy, and texture. It’s in the pantheon of perfect dishes. You cannot make cacio e pepe better.’”--Robin Raisfeld and Rob Patronite, "How the Humble Cacio e Pepe Transcended Its Roots," New York Magazine (Jan. 25, 2016).



A new Bay Area restaurant called Nachoria (right) will be devoted solely to nachos, with customers choosing a meat (like pollo and carne asada, carnitas, shrimp, and even veggies or ceviche), and topping it with  a housemade cheese sauce, fire-roasted red peppers, caramelized onions, green onions, and queso fresco.


 Any of John Mariani's books below may be ordered from

   I'm proud and happy to announce that my new book, The Hound in Heaven (21st Century Lion Books), has just been published through Amazon and Kindle. 
     It is a  novella, and for anyone who loves dogs, Christmas, romance, inspiration, even the supernatural, I hope you'll find this to be a treasured  favorite. The  story concerns how, after a New England teacher, his wife and their two daughters adopt a stray puppy found in their barn in northern Maine, their lives seem full of promise. But when tragedy strikes, their wonderful dog Lazarus and the spirit of Christmas are the only things that may bring back his master back from the edge of despair. 


“What a huge surprise turn this story took! I was completely stunned! I truly enjoyed this book and its message.” – Actress Ali MacGraw

“He had me at Page One. The amount of heart, human insight, soul searching, and deft literary strength that John Mariani pours into this airtight novella is vertigo-inducing. Perhaps ‘wow’ would be the best comment.” – James Dalessandro, author of Bohemian Heart and 1906.

“John Mariani’s Hound in Heaven starts with a well-painted portrayal of an American family, along with the requisite dog. A surprise event flips the action of the novel and captures us for a voyage leading to a hopeful and heart-warming message. A page turning, one sitting read, it’s the perfect antidote for the winter and promotion of holiday celebration.” – Ann Pearlman, author of The Christmas Cookie Club and A Gift for my Sister.

“John Mariani’s concise, achingly beautiful novella pulls a literary rabbit out of a hat – a mash-up of the cosmic and the intimate, the tragic and the heart-warming – a Christmas tale for all ages, and all faiths. Read it to your children, read it to yourself… but read it. Early and often. Highly recommended.” – Jay Bonansinga, New York Times bestselling author of Pinkerton’s War, The Sinking of The Eastland, and The Walking Dead: The Road To Woodbury.

“Amazing things happen when you open your heart to an animal. The Hound in Heaven delivers a powerful story of healing that is forged in the spiritual relationship between a man and his best friend. The book brings a message of hope that can enrich our images of family, love, and loss.” – Dr. Barbara Royal, author of The Royal Treatment.


The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink by John F. Mariani (Bloomsbury USA, $35)

Modesty forbids me to praise my own new book, but let me proudly say that it is an extensive revision of the 4th edition that appeared more than a decade ago, before locavores, molecular cuisine, modernist cuisine, the Food Network and so much more, now included. Word origins have been completely updated, as have per capita consumption and production stats. Most important, for the first time since publication in the 1980s, the book includes more than 100 biographies of Americans who have changed the way we cook, eat and drink -- from Fannie Farmer and Julia Child to Robert Mondavi and Thomas Keller.

"This book is amazing! It has entries for everything from `abalone' to `zwieback,' plus more than 500 recipes for classic American dishes and drinks."--Devra First, The Boston Globe.

"Much needed in any kitchen library."--Bon Appetit.

Now in Paperback, too--How Italian Food Conquered the World (Palgrave Macmillan)  has won top prize  from the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.  It is a rollicking history of the food culture of Italy and its ravenous embrace in the 21st century by the entire world. From ancient Rome to la dolce vita of post-war Italy, from Italian immigrant cooks to celebrity chefs, from pizzerias to high-class ristoranti, this chronicle of a culinary diaspora is as much about the world's changing tastes, prejudices,  and dietary fads as about our obsessions with culinary fashion and style.--John Mariani

"Eating Italian will never be the same after reading John Mariani's entertaining and savory gastronomical history of the cuisine of Italy and how it won over appetites worldwide. . . . This book is such a tasteful narrative that it will literally make you hungry for Italian food and arouse your appetite for gastronomical history."--Don Oldenburg, USA Today. 

"Italian restaurants--some good, some glitzy--far outnumber their French rivals.  Many of these establishments are zestfully described in How Italian Food Conquered the World, an entertaining and fact-filled chronicle by food-and-wine correspondent John F. Mariani."--Aram Bakshian Jr., Wall Street Journal.

"Mariani admirably dishes out the story of Italy’s remarkable global ascent to virtual culinary hegemony....Like a chef gladly divulging a cherished family recipe, Mariani’s book reveals the secret sauce about how Italy’s cuisine put gusto in gusto!"--David Lincoln Ross,

"Equal parts history, sociology, gastronomy, and just plain fun, How Italian Food Conquered the World tells the captivating and delicious story of the (let's face it) everybody's favorite cuisine with clarity, verve and more than one surprise."--Colman Andrews, editorial director of The Daily

"A fantastic and fascinating read, covering everything from the influence of Venice's spice trade to the impact of Italian immigrants in America and the evolution of alta cucina. This book will serve as a terrific resource to anyone interested in the real story of Italian food."--Mary Ann Esposito, host of PBS-TV's Ciao Italia.

"John Mariani has written the definitive history of how Italians won their way into our hearts, minds, and stomachs.  It's a story of pleasure over pomp and taste over technique."--Danny Meyer, owner of NYC restaurants Union Square Cafe,  The Modern, and Maialino.



FEATURED LINKS: I am happy to  report that the Virtual Gourmet is  linked to four excellent travel sites:

Everett Potter's Travel  Report

I consider this the best and savviest blog of its kind on the  web. Potter is a columnist for USA Weekend, Diversion, Laptop and Luxury  Spa Finder, a contributing editor for Ski and  a frequent contributor to National  Geographic Traveler,  and Elle Decor. "I’ve designed this site is for people who take their  travel seriously," says Potter. "For travelers who want to learn about special  places but don’t necessarily want to pay through the nose for the privilege of  staying there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about five-star  places as five-star experiences."  THIS WEEK: 5 MYTHS ABOUT AIRLINE FOOD

Eating Las Vegas JOHN CURTAS has been covering the Las Vegas food and restaurant scene since 1995. He is the co-author of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants (the fourth edition of which will be published in early 2016), as well as the author of the Eating Las Vegas web site: www.eatinglasvegas. He can also be seen every Friday morning as the “resident foodie” for Wake Up With the Wagners on KSNV TV (NBC) Channel 3  in Las Vegas.


nickonwine: An engaging, interactive wine column by Nick Passmore, Artisanal Editor, Four Seasons Magazine; Wine Columnist,;;

MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly.  Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Editor: Walter Bagley. Contributing Writers: Christopher Mariani, Robert Mariani,  Misha Mariani, John A. Curtas, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Andrew Chalk,  Dotty Griffith and Brian Freedman. Contributing Photographers: Galina Dargery,  Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

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