Virtual Gourmet

  November 19,  2017                                                                                            NEWSLETTER




Part One
By John Mariani

By John Mariani



By Geoff Kalish


Part One
By John Mariani

George and Martha Washington's Dining Room at Mount Vernon 

    Funny how Washington’s restaurant scene is just now being recognized by the food media, including the Michelin Guides, as one of America’s finest food towns. It long has been, dating back to the Reagan Era and the “power lunch,” when  places like Le Pavillon, Jean-Louis at The Watergate, Le Lion d’Or, The Jockey Club, Cantina d’Italia and Duke Ziebert’s were packed with pols and the lobbyists who seduced them.

    By the 1990s D.C. was competitive with any city its size in the U.S., with innovative restaurants like Vidalia, Red Sage, Goldoni Galileo, DC Coast and I Ricchi (see below) opening regularly.  So I’ve made annual visits to the Capital to check out what’s new, re-configured and still as good as ever. Here’s this year’s report.

The Watergate Hotel
2650 Virginia Avenue NW


    It had been a very long time—1986 to be exact—since I’d stepped foot into The Watergate Hotel, which at that time was home to the illustrious Jean-Louis restaurant headed, until 1996, by the late master chef Jean-Louis Palladin.  For all those years since, the hotel never made much of an effort to come even close to that level of fine dining.

    Fortunately, however, the new restaurant Kingbird, if not trying to serve haute cuisine, has, under Chef Michael Santoro, restored a good deal of luster to a property that has always had a troubled history going back to the Nixon days, when its very name became synonymous with political shenanigans, even to the point of pundits attaching  “-Gate” to practically any scandal.

Even today the current management offers a tour of  “The Room Where It Happened - Scandal Room 214,” containing items from the era. After several ownership changes, the hotel, now owned by Euro Capital Properties, has kept its original brutish, toothy exterior by Luigi Moretti, has had an amazing transformation inside by Ron Arad.  Today it has a futuristic spaceship look—more Forbidden Planet than Space Odyssey or Star Wars—done in many shades of white and gray and using Slinky toy-like chrome spirals from floor to ceiling as leitmotifs, beginning at the gleaming reception desk. 

    The very spacious bedrooms benefit from the sweeping curvature of the building overlooking the Potomac, and the décor of the rooms mirrors a minimalist look brightened by rich leather fabrics and plum-colored carpets.

    The restaurant, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, uses the same motifs, with those soaring columns and hanging metal beehive lighting, and whose colors mimic that of the local kingbird. There is a glam bar on the way to the main dining room.

    Executive Chef Michael Santoro, who had experience at the experimental restaurants The Fat Duck outside London and Mugaritz in Spain, then as chef de cuisine at the Blue Duck Tavern in D.C., is crafting a menu that seems highly personalized, with plenty that might be called sophisticated comfort food and much else that is artfully composed around the seasons.

    At my recent meal  I began with a very good warm heirloom tomato with sheep’s milk ricotta, basil and candied olives ($16) and excellent Madai snapper crudo with a mosaic of avocado, radish and kalamansi ($20), whose textures were melded both sweetly and sensibly. Best of all was a warm summer tart of eggplant caponata and edible flowers ($13). That evening the seven-herb ravioli in an olive and capers sauce vierge and basil pesto ($15) had rather dry, chewy pasta dough and not much flavor.

    For main courses, the Elysian Field saddle of lamb was a fine piece of meat, served in a Mediterranean style with smoked couscous, charred eggplant and cucumber variations ($48),  every component complementary to boost flavors.

    A bouillabaisse for two ($104) was a lavish production but it didn’t achieve what a simpler, ruddy and traditional bouillabaisse does when the broth itself is deeply flavored by the seafood. 

    Barbecued veal cheek was lusciously rendered, with grilled binchotan fresh beans, pickled sea beans and tomato ($34), while an eight-ounce beef tenderloin with cabbage, Shiraz wine and maître d’hotel butter ($48) had all the classic complexity it should.


or dessert there was a bountiful serving of ripe, sweet peaches and cream with vanilla ice cream and an enrichment of brown butter.  The restaurant is very proud of its stacked-up milkshakes, which are hefty desserts but sheer fun.

    Kingbird stocks an impressive wine cellar, with a good selection of bottles under $50 but way too many wines above $150. A Peter Michael “Ma Belle-Fille” 2014 is about $100 retail, but $260 at Kingbird.

    With its décor, its bar and its serious menu and wine list, Kingbird has more than shattered its lackluster image as a mere hotel dining room and restored it to The Watergate.  Now, with its outdoor terrace, panorama on the river and the city, and its shiny new look, there are plenty of reasons to dine well here.

    Just last week, the hotel introduced its Top of the Skate, a brand new rooftop skating rink at the Top of the Gate, rooftop bar, with a 360-degree view of the nation’s capital, as well as a special menu with seasonal offerings and treats such as Stromboli,  S’mores, German-style hot pretzels and Mulled wine.




1220 19th Street NW

(202) 835-0459

    Now three decades in business, I Ricchi in Dupont Circle has never been better, and owner Christianne Ricchi will probably never be satisfied tightening, refining and tweaking the food and wine.  The beautiful, rustic Tuscan décor with its terracotta floors and wood-burning hearth looks as inviting as ever, and Ricchi herself seems to know everyone at every table, as well she should, for her regulars, who are legion, are assured that no one in D.C. will take better care of them.  No one in the business gets more of an earful of political gossip than Ricchi. In addition, she’s been a champion of women in the culinary world and has the awards to prove it.
    Twenty-eight years ago Christianne opened the restaurant with her husband, Francesco Ricchi, from whom she parted ways after 17 years. He now owns Cesco in Bethesda; she has full ownership of I Ricchi.
    I had the good fortune to dine and reminisce with Christianne a few weeks ago, and we blew through a good portion of the menu, both its classics and its seasonal dishes.  Thus, as antipasti we had grilled Mediterranean octopus with cucumber, tomato, arugula and balsamic vinegar ($18) and crisply fried, golden calamari with pomorola tomato dipping sauce, lemon and fried parsley ($16)—a very tough dish not to polish off, especially knowing what else was in the offing.
    I sampled three different pastas and a risotto, all impeccably cooked, like the rigatoni with a lustrous and deeply flavorful strasciate meat sauce cooked for 12 hours ($20 as a main course). Fat tortelloni stuffed with ricotta and spinach needed nothing more than a gloss of sage butter ($18), and the cavatelli shells made with squid ink, housemade fennel sausage, Gulf shrimp and roasted tomato ($26) was one of those rare pasta dishes involving squid ink—so often out of a bottle—that had the true freshness and taste of the sea in it. There is always a risotto of the day (market price); that night, late in summer, it was tenderly cooked with fresh corn, mascarpone cheese and a dash of fresh thyme.
    Largely, I Ricchi is a Tuscan ristorante and grill, so the kitchen does very well by dishes like orange marinated chicken with a rich balsamic reduction and roasted rosemary speckled potatoes ($29).  And if you can’t decide among meat dishes, go for the splendid mixed grill of marinated lamb chop, prosciutto-stuffed baby quail, Tuscan sausage on skewers and bay leaf scented crostini ($39).

     I wish I could say I just picked over dessert, but they were too wonderful not to gorge on—a chocolate meringue torta with whipped cream and frozen chocolate mousse; a walnut-crusted mascarpone cheese cake; and a semi-freddo with strawberry cream and vanilla gelato (all $9).
    The wine list at I Ricchi is, properly, wholly Italian, largely from small wineries whose owners are well known to Christianne.  Prices are not unreasonably hiked up.
    I Ricchi is a celebratory place, and Washington could use something to celebrate these days.  More important, it’s a place anyone who loves Tuscan cuisine can go back to again and again and expect the same care, attention and quality every time. Having Christianne Ricchi there to welcome you adds immeasurably to the ambiance.


By John Mariani

35 East 21st Street (near Park Avenue)

    What can I say about a restaurant with very good food that I’d never want to go back to?
    I suppose I begin with the reason for the latter and end on the positive side with the two-year old Cosme, a much-lauded Mexican restaurant in the Flatiron District run by Chef Enrique Olvera, who, with his many restaurantes in Mexico—mostly notably Pujol—and abroad, is a kind of South-of-the-Border Mario Batali.  His cuisine is a modern version of traditional Mexican dishes, all done with flair and great presentation.  Sadly, that presentation is within a dining room so loud, raucous and music-driven that an evening there is not the pleasure it should be.
    As soon as I got through the door, the decibels were bouncing off the ceiling in the well-packed bar area. (My iPhone app clocked it at the sound of a passing motorcycle.)  I hoped once I passed through that din the dining room would be a far more civilized atmosphere, and it was, but only by about ten percent. Actually it’s a fairly handsome space, though very shadowy, as if a lounge singer was about to appear to sing “Besame Mucho.” 
    Black is not the most convivial color for a ceiling. But the fact that the décor is designed with no soft surfaces—bare wooden tables, pillars, no buffering—makes it a very noisy space, into which the management pipes what sounded—were you even able to hear much beyond the bass and drums—like disco or tech music of no discernible style.  Direct lighting on the tables is, however, a very good way to show off the beauty of the food.
    So, with four other people, I sat either yelling across the table to have someone pass the wine (which was rarely poured by any staff member) or in silence because conversation with the person next to me was nearly impossible.  I nodded my way through dinner, pretending to hear what my tablemates were saying.
    And that’s a damn shame, because I truly liked the food at Cosme, which comes out at a very fast pace but whose finished plates don’t get removed in a timely way.
    Dishes may be shared, though portions are none too big. The color and flair with which they are presented is a delight, and the flavors are fascinating amalgams of ideas both old and new.  Thus we began with a tostada with sea urchin, avocado, cucumber and a salsa made with rich bone marrow ($21).  Very finely sliced scallops came with a carefully modulated avocado aïoli and cool, sliced jicama ($23), while enmoladas (enchiladas) were stuffed with creamy ricotta, hojo santo, and queso fresco ($24).
    An order of lobster with shiso, ginger, mojo, and brown butter ($29) was less than halfway cooked through, and a dish of hen of the woods mushrooms with a less-than-complex white mole and cabbage (left) was very bland and certainly not worth $27.  Chef de cuisine Daniela Soto-Innes does a nice job with octopus (above) done as a memela—a street snack made with a masa dough similar to a tostada—with black beans, salsa verde and queso fresco ($28), meant to be shared.
    A corn tempura-treated soft shell crab with shishito mole and tomatoes ($29) was a delicious turn with Asian accents, but short rib with scallions, baby onions and avocado ($36) was disappointing in its texture and lack of deep flavors.  Most disappointing were duck carnitas with onions, radishes and cilantro (right), also meant to be shared, but at $89, it should feed four. Braised in Coca Cola and orange, its skin becomes unpleasantly flaccid.
    Desserts looked as good as the appetizers and main courses, especially the husk meringue with corn mousse ($16 is a lot for this) and what is called “goat cheesecake” ($14) that might better be termed “goat’s cheese cake.”  The $14 yogurt shaved ice (raspado) with palm seeds and chia seeds was little more than sour.
    The wine list is a good selection, rich in Spanish bottlings, but prices are sky high, with only a single red wine under $50 and the majority over $100.   There are several signature cocktails (all $17),  a slew of tequilas and mezcals, and there are several varieties of tea offered.  It would help if the menu explained the plethora of Mexican food words.
    I doubt Cosme does take-out, though I wish they would.  I’d order more than half the dishes on the menu again.  I just wouldn’t consume them in that caterwauling dining room.



by Geoff Kalish



Grgich Hills Estate: 40 Years Young

    As most wine aficionados know, Yugoslavia-born Mijenko (“Mike”) Grgich migrated to California via Germany and Canada in the early 1950s and worked at Souverain, Christian Brothers, Beaulieu and Mondavi before joining Chateau Montelena as winemaker—where he produced a Chardonnay that in 1976 bested a number of French white Burgundies in the infamous “Judgment of Paris” wine tasting. And in 1976, along with coffee-heir Austin Hills, he founded Grgich Hills Estate along Route 29 in Napa Valley. Now, 94 years young, he’s still making wine in both  California and Croatia, with the day-to-day management of the California facility passed on to his daughter, Violet,  whose mantra is “Everyday do something just a little bit better.” Unfortunately, Mike’s winery in Croatia suffered extensive damage in a fire and is currently being rebuilt; he also witnessed the recent fires that ravaged many of California’s wine regions, but thankfully left his winery unscathed.

    Recently, as part of the 40-year anniversary of the founding of the winery, a tasting of new releases was organized by Jonathan Land, enthusiastic sommelier/manager of The Wine Loft of Naples in Naples, Fla. It featured the winery’s U.S. representative, Carl Russo, discussing the wines and provided an opportunity for The Wine Loft’s newly appointed chef, Gilbert Loera, to show off some of his talents in “small dishes” to pair with the wines. Of importance: Under the direction of Mike Grgich’s nephew, Ivo Jermaz, the winery’s 366 acres of vineyard are maintained “naturally,” without artificial fertilizer, pesticides or herbicides. (On a sadder note, Ivo’s house succumbed to the recent fires and he and his family are currently residing in the winery’s guest house.)

    A first course of fig and prosciutto crostini was accompanied by the 2014 Grgich Hills Fume Blanc ($31). Made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes grown in the winery’s American Canyon and Carneros vineyards (at the southern tip of Napa Valley, near San Pablo Bay), the wine showed a pale straw color, bouquet of new mown hay and lemons with a taste of lemongrass and notes of anise, with a surprisingly long finish that married well with the sweetness and crunchiness of the crostini.
     Next came the 2013 Grgich  Hills Chardonnay ($43) mated with dewy grilled salmon served over mixed greens doused with a Dijon mustard and dill dressing. This iconic100% Chardonnay, also sourced  from vineyards in Carneros and American Canyon, is barrel fermented with indigenous yeast, then aged for 10 months in French oak (40% new). Very Burgundian, it had a bouquet and taste of apples, pears and even mangos with a long, smooth finish, that brought out the salinity of the salmon and yet was not overwhelmed by the salad dressing. The 2013 Grgich Merlot ($43), produced from 100% Merlot grapes and aged for 18 months in French oak barrels (30% new), showed a bouquet and taste of ripe cherries and plums and made perfect accompaniment to medium rare, sliced filet-mignon, served with a berry demi-glace, roasted cauliflower and garlicky mashed potatoes—the wine accentuating the natural sweetness of the beef and taming the flavor of garlic. The 2014 Grgich Hills Cabernet Sauvignon ($72), made of Cabernet Sauvignon blended with small amounts of Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, had a bouquet and taste of cassis and hints of cloves in its finish, which gave a bit of zest to the lollipop lamb chop served with a heady roasted root vegetable medley.

    And the 2012 Grgich Zinfandel, blended with a very small amount of Petite Sirah and aged for 14 months in large French oak casks, had a bouquet and taste of black cherries and ripe plums. And, although I would have preferred it with the lamb, it mated quite well with a dessert consisting of a chocolate brownie topped with fresh blackberries—the Zinfandel  enriching the flavor of the fruit. And for a finale, we were offered a taste of the 2013 Violetta Late Harvest ($85/375ml bottle), which had a honeyed taste of pears and apricots with a touch of acidity in its finish, a bit too sweet for the brownie, but would most likely mate well with fruit and/or ripe cheeses.


Rhone Ranger Shootout

    Billed whimsically as “A Game of Rhônes,” a recent tasting of Rhône-style wines from California’s Tablas Creek versus those of Maison Perrin of France’s northern Rhône area (both wineries partially owned and managed by Nicolas Perrin) proved quite interesting. Held at The Naples Wine Collection (an upscale retail store and restaurant serving “small bites”), the event was a walk-around tasting of three wines from each producer, with representatives from the wineries (Nicolas Jaboulet, co-owner of Maison Perrin, and Darren Delmore, national sales manager of Tablas Creek) available to answer questions. The following are my notes on the event, which should prove interesting, especially to the growing number of consumers now gravitating to wines from the Rhône area.

    Although the 2014 Crozes Hermitage Blanc from Perrin ($19) was made from 100% Marssanne grapes and the 2014 Tablas Creek Espirit de Beaucastel Blanc was a blend of Roussanne (72%), Grenache Blanc (23%) and Picpoul Blanc (5%), they showed similar aesthetics, with a bouquet and flavor of apples, pears and citrus, and should go quite well with seafare, especially shrimp and prawns. However, the Tablas Creek wine showed a depth and richness bound to improve over a few years, while the Perrin wine is unlikely to improve much over time. Next up was a comparison of the 2014 Perrin Crozes Hermitage Rouge ($24) and the Tablas Creek 2015 Côtes de Tablas Rouge ($37). Even taking the slight difference in vintages into account these were vastly different wines.
     The French wine made of 100% Syrah showed a vegetal bouquet with a taste of strawberries and figs and notes of mint in its finish that would mate well with barbecued ribs and other grilled meats. The Tablas Creek, made of a blend of 39% Grenache, 35% Syrah, 16% Counoise and 10% Mourvèdre, had a fragrant bouquet and rich taste of ripe plums and blueberries with a long smooth finish that would marry perfectly with game birds, pasta with red sauce and even grilled salmon.  In addition, it would be expected that, while both wines will improve somewhat over the next few years, the Tablas Creek would be drinking very well in a decade, while the Perrin wine would be “over the hill.”
    And, finally, a comparison of the 2014 Tablas Creek Espirit de Beaucastel Rouge ($63) and the Perrin 2013 Ermitage Rouge ($75):  I clearly preferred the Perrin wine, made from 100% Syrah and aged in a combination of new oak (30%) and stainless steel, over the Tablas Creek wine, a blend of Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah and Counoise grapes. While both showed bouquets and tastes of ripe cherries and raspberries, I found the Perrin an extremely elegant wine with multiple layers of flavor, even now in its youth expected to be enjoyable with prime rib, lamb or  grilled tuna, while the Tablas Creek was an easy drinking, but non-complex wine, more attuned to the tastes of hamburgers and pizza.



Based on advice by researcher Brian Wansink, of Cornell U. :
• “Small plates help you eat less.”
• “People who display fruit on kitchen counters have lower BMIs.”
• “Kids love vegetables when you make them sound cool.”


"The South is amassing restaurants with national acclaim like a collection of prized cast-iron skillets."--Jed Portman, "Where We're Eating in 2017," Garden & Gun Magazine.


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


   The Hound in Heaven (21st Century Lion Books) 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 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." 

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 (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, Geoff Kalish, Mort Hochstein, and Brian Freedman. Contributing Photographer: Galina Dargery. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

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