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BryanZ

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  1. BryanZ

    Maialino

    Dropped into Maialino last night for an early dinner. Even about a month out, all I could get was a 5:45 reservation. Place is very, very popular. The dining room isn't so cramped that it feels oppressively loud, however, so that's a plus. I will say that I wasn't so enamored with the design as others. To me, it felt a bit generic, a bit Restoration Hardware, kind of like Gramercy Tavern meets Irving Mill, with a bit of Italy thrown in for good measure. We were nearly half an hour late for our reservation due to traffic, but after calling to let them know we'd be delayed they were more than gracious both on the phone and upon arrival. Our meal progressed at a pretty decent clip, as I'm sure they wanted to turn the table not much after 8 pm, but in no way did we feel rushed. Service across the board was friendly and down-to-earth, but the servers, especially the backwaiters, didn't know the menu as well as I've come to expect in a USHG restaurant. This isn't to say they were uninformed, but dishes were dropped with minimal description as opposed to the enthusiasm I might have expected. I know Lupa is a more apt comparison, but Babbo seemed to be the anchor that I kept returning to. While Babbo certainly has its quirks and hassles, I find the food there to be slightly more impression-making. I think Babbo's strength is its ability to take largely traditional Italian dishes, then tweak them to fit NYC palates. Batali's food always seems to rely on big hits of acid or spice or buttery fat to really make the diner take notice. With some of the dishes at Maialino I wish the kitchen would've gone one step further in building flavor into the dish. I also found the antipasti to be a bit small overall. The sweetbread appetizer included a mound of greens and four small nuggets of fried sweetbread. I would've preferred two larger pieces so that the juxtaposition between crispy exterior and creamy interior would be clearer. Our second antipasti was a special of celery root, shaved celery, soft-cooked egg, and bottarga. Here again there was a small mound of celery root, half of a small egg, and a very light sprinkling of bottarga. This was a good dish, but I wanted more creamy egg yolk to go around, more of the bit salty hit from the bottarga. Sweetbreads Celery root Pastas were relatively simple but satisfying. Again, there's no foie stuff agnolotti or barolo braised beef ravioli here. I really liked how the cod pasta took a very traditional preparation and skewed it so that it was new to me yet still traditional. Rather than the more typical shellfish, this dish used flakes of cod strewn through the pasta. The cod was firm, yet not so spongy as shrimp, and it was meaty, more so than, say, scallops. The raviolo al uovo is straight up comfort food. And the fried sage garnish actually added to the dish. Pastas The sea bass we had was nice, clean, tasty, though I didn't get much of the advertised preserved lemon. Perhaps it was just in the vinaigrette. But the fish really was really but a distraction. The maialino is freaking awesome. Both my sister and I remarked, at nearly the same instant, that eating this dish made us happy to be alive. It's one of those things that you at first gingerly try to cut up, nibble at a bit of skin. Then, after a few minutes, it's about going for the ribs with your hands, using the fantastic bread to sop up the even more fantastic pooled juices and fat, ripping off swaths of crispy cracklin'. This dish is probably the best thing I've eaten in recent memory. To me, it's currently one of the great dishes of NYC. I had the cote de boeuf at Minetta the night before, I eat Paul Kahan's food--so soulful and rich and delicious--in Chicago multiple nights a week, but this trumped all. Sea bass, mizuna, preserved lemon Maialino al forno Brussels sprouts with chestnuts Desserts were solid but not super exciting, as I usually find Italian pastry. Nicely balanced ricotta sformato will do well for people who like their sweets with just a bit of savory. The poached pears bordered on being too sweet, but the boozyness of the thing, along with its soft, yielding texture, lent it a air of luxury, almost like a baba au rum. Desserts So in summary this is a very solid restaurant. I'm not swooning over it because I thought it lacked some of the punch I usually look for when I'm going out. Italian food also isn't my favorite, so I'm slightly less inclined to go ga-ga over this kind of restaurant. The suckling pig, however, is epic, awesome, delicious, and worth a visit alone. I'd be inclined to stop in at the bar for a quick snack, but if someone invites me back to the trattoria for a full meal it almost seems foolish not to get the maialino.
  2. I think the real question to ask is if it is "worth it" to go anywhere else.
  3. I believe in serendipity. Surely, the realist in me concedes that daily life is ripe with troubles more likely overcome by deliberate action than by nothing but fortunate happenstance. This truth aside, those rare, unlikely events that lead one to feel that he leads a charmed life, for perhaps just a few hours, resonate deeply with me. Where a restaurant can embody and promote this feeling of felicity is the very essence of exemplary hospitality. A strange opening to the recap of my meal last night at Alinea, I admit. But, as with so many meals where great food is pretty much a given, context is, well, nearly everything. In this case, the context for this meal could be described as nothing but serendipitous. People less obsessed with Alinea than I am--99.999% of the dining population--might be unaware that a couple months ago the blogosphere and Twitterverse--yes, I used those two terms, in succession--picked up a story about an individual who had just signed a lease for an apartment with a view of Alinea's kitchen. Clearly this person was a kindred spirit; I even considered reaching out to said individual, as I too would be moving to Chicago in the coming weeks. I quickly decided that this would be weird, even given my proclivity for reaching to like-minded food lovers over the internet. Fast-forward a month to the reception area of a downtown skyscraper. First day of work at a new job, in a new city, essentially having just started a new life. Anxious to meet my new colleagues, who should sit down right next to me but a young lady who happens to have just moved into an apartment with a view of the kitchen at Alinea. The same young lady who had originally posted about said view. Mind. Is. Blown. Having now watched Alinea's kitchen from afar for the past few weeks myself--not creepy, I promise--I was slated to visit the restaurant earlier this week with a friend visiting from NYC. When his travel plans fell through, it was most fortuitous that my new friend was able to get a same-week reservation for Saturday night. So, with positive vibes abound, Alinea needed only to do what it does best, put out amazingly creative and tasty food in a seamlessly polished yet warm fashion. As usual they succeeded. It's been fun, enriching even, to visit this restaurant over the years. Since my last visit two years ago, it's clear that this is an establishment with a fully developed and consistent identity. It has soul, a personality that's at once creative, modernist, disarming yet eccentric. If Alinea was a girl, I'd date her. The service we received was seamless. Unobtrusive, engaged, perfectly timed and choreographed. This was my dining companion's first visit to the restaurant, and I think it's safe to say that she came away quite favorably impressed. That and extremely full. The menu Some new dishes, some updated dishes, some classics. Taken as a whole, the meal was fantastic. As a general note, there were quite a few dishes that adopted Southeast Asian, and especially Thai, flavors. This was new to me. There were a couple dishes that were deemed less successful, but I find this process of critical appraisal to be inextricable from modern cuisine as a whole. So much of this food pushes the envelope of flavor and texture that not every dish can be a home run nor should it be. Now for the pretty pictures. Osetra A wonderful opening couple of bites. The recast traditional garnishes felt natural and entirely appropriate. I will say, however, that this caviar course, while fun, wasn't as luxurious as those I've recently had at Manresa and Eleven Madison Park. Yuba I've had this dish, in earlier iterations, a few times now, and this is definitely my favorite preparation. It feels more integrated, and the sweet miso sauce was perfect. The ideal canape. The Distillation/Pork belly courses were meant to feed into one another. The distillation was exactly that, a perfectly clear liquid imbued with classic Thai flavors like fish sauce, lime and chile. Taken as a small shot, this was a nice way to open the palate for the range of textures and flavors in the next wave of the course. There were many, many components. The version of the course that we received--I believe we were the first guests to experience this particular presentation--first started off with a supplementary centerpiece in the form of two rather pretty rice paper sheets, suspended like flags from two wooden holsters. We were then presented with a striking two-level plate that we were instructed to disassemble. The glass layer, with the ingredients was removed and set aside. The two metal pieces that first appeared to be purely aesthetic design elements were removed from the wooden, lower level of the plate, then assembled into a kind of nest. Our captain then placed the rice paper into this nest.A spoonful of pork belly was then heaped into the rice paper. We were then instructed to add the various garnishes to the nest as we desired. This whole packaged was then wrapped up and eaten as a summer roll. The whole process sounds gimmicky, but the the end product was absolutely delicious. It was fun to experience such an interactive course, but it was also among the tastiest of the evening. Brook trout After a course so unapologetically interactive and contemporary, this made for quite the stark contrast. The cut crystal stemware, vintage flatware, patterned plates, and rich saucing really beg one to consider how many forms deliciousness can take, both aesthetically and to the taste buds. I was a big fan of this course for its richness. The trout roe, poached quail egg, and pastry shell also evoked breakfast, an association I found whimsical in such a serious, old-school dish. Black truffle I've said it before but this is a classic in its own time. Just unreal delicious. Duck This may have been my favorite dish of the night. It was elegant yet so powerful, fully encompassing sweet, savory, and the essence of fall. The hard sear on the foie and breast and the sprout leaves added bitterness and umami. The broth was light yet so dense with flavor. Also loved how various offal cuts were included in the dish. Kumquat Like a sweet, citrusy sazerac, this was a nice palate cleanser for me. My dining companion, not the biggest fan of brown spirits, wasn't quite so into this. An intense bite. Bacon, Thai banana, peanut butter The next three dishes were presented at once. The bacon-on-a-swing is a classic in its own right, and the flavor combination here is just spot on. The Thai banana dish was the the least successful of the three for me. The dish felt a bit unintegrated. I think I got what they were going for here, but it just didn't come together for me. The peanut butter was just a big, ballsy bite. Most likely a maltodextrin application, this was creamy, sticky, and actually a bit spicy. Simple but cool and effective. Octopus I believe I've had a version of this dish three times now. On my previous visit the dish featured surf clam, and I distinctly remember enjoying the flavor and texture more. The octopus here was a bit chewy and dry, not meaty. We remarked about this to one of our servers and he said it was a conscious effort by the kitchen to give the dish some texture or chew, that it was inherent in the preparation. I loved the green peanut broth at the bottom of the bowl, it almost evoked a lighter, cleaner tasting potato-leek soup. Matsutake For me, probably the coolest savory dish of the evening. The o-toro was a beautiful piece of fish, but this plate was all about uncommon elements totally coming together in a surprisingly organic fashion. The matsutake, in both unadulterated and pureed form, took center stage, with hits of sweetness from the mango, salinity from a few leaves of seaweed, and acidity from the yuzu sorbet coming in to make things interesting. Pheasant Although just a single bite of food, this was, for me, the richest dish of the evening. Between the heady burning leaves; the salty, crispy shell; and a sweet, juicy, meaty interior this was an autumn state fair in the most compact of packages. If haute cuisine can trigger powerful food memories, real or imagined, this dish surely did that. Hot potato I've made these for private events. Mine are never as good. Another classic, totally delicious. Lamb My second exposure to this dish, this time much more autumnal. I particularly enjoyed the smoked eggplant topping. The lamb nuggets were actually a bit firmer than I would've expected but still very tasty. And quite unapologetically lamby as well, perhaps to the chagrin of my tablemate who hadn't eaten red meat or pork in the 14 or so years immediately leading up to this meal. It's Alinea, you go big or go home. We choose the former. Lemon soda Like a fizzy, powdery party in my mouth. Blackberry, bubble gum, transparency, concord grape Another series of small bites delivered at once. The antennae is always fun--and by fun, I mean watching how people react to it--this time topped with a rather bold combination that evoked a sweet-savory cheesecake. The bubble gum dish required additional vaguely inappropriate eating technique. In this dish a tube is layered with various ingredients, all designed to be consumed in one, umm, suck. I thought this bordered on being too sweet, but it was a fun, nostalgic flavor profile, slightly updated. Of course the concord grape dish and its brethren are famous. So much fun, a total eyeopener to newbie and Alinea veteran alike. Is it too much to say the dish makes me happy to be alive? If I'm being honest I prefer the flavor of the old apple-horseradish version, but this is just such a cool dish. Hay I'd been wanting to try this dish since hearing about it a couple months back. I've heard of burning hay for aroma or cooking in it, but to base a dessert around the flavor of dry grass seemed quite interesting. This was quite successful, the hay contributing a wheaty, savory quality to the dish. The coffee cake provided bitterness, the berry acidity. Chocolate This was just so freaking cool. Of course I'd read about this radically new take on tableside presentation at length. I'd seen the pictures, watched the videos. But actually being right there as this dish is built in front of you is just flat out awesome. You can't help but smile and let your jaw drop just a bit. Add to that that this dish was actually very tasty and so fun to eat. A total winner. A game-changer. Something to remember. Pound cake We finished with this relatively traditional bite. A cute end to a truly fantastic meal. Overfed, overimbibed, it's hard to ask for more out of any dining experience. I realize all of this sounds incredibly sycophantic. Pretty much all of my reports after a meal here are. Maybe that says something about me, but more likely it's a testament to the hospitality, generosity, and excellence of this restaurant. Full Flickr set here, http://bit.ly/2Tb78z
  4. Sam Sifton's first review is up, here. His first review is of DBGB, and though I don't necessarily agree with the rating, I will say it's a pretty well-written review. And surely this was out of Sifton's control, but the leading picture just makes me smile. It's as if it ushers in a new, happier time for both restaurants and their patrons.
  5. I had no idea there was a section. Totally makes sense.
  6. BryanZ

    Aldea

    I finally made it to dinner here and loved my meal. This is an exciting, refreshing restaurant, one that feels both of-the-times but is far from formulaic. I'll also go out on a limb and say this is the first contemporary Iberian restaurant to succeed in Manhattan in recent memory. Yeah, I went there. The only others that come to mind were Ureña and Suba. Both of those tanked. Boqueria, Txikito, Tia Pol, those are all glorified tapas/pintxos spots. Someone correct me if I'm way off base here. I think Mendes has an absolute home run here. This is ambitious food. No burgers, no American comfort foods. The bar snacks/small plates/bites feel less like concessions and more like well-thought out introductions to a full meal. Not that one couldn't snack on these, but it's not a mini-pimenton-corn dog or serrano ham flatbread kind of place. The space itself is rather narrow. Diners are wedged in quite tightly not only laterally but front to back too. I pity the servers who have to squeeze past the tables and the chef's counter dozens of times each night. There are but inches to spare. But the restaurant has height to its advantage and is entirely more civilized than the Momofukus. In fact, Chef Mendes's food and the entire counter experience struck me to be quite similar in style to Ssam and Ko. The food is grounded in both the Iberian peninsula and in Manhattan with other global influences thrown in where appropriate. It's exciting without being overwrought. This open kitchen is also far more interesting to watch than Ko's. It's also refreshing to see a chef not only touch nearly every plate that leaves the pass but to see him work on some component of that dish, too. Mendes seared just as many shrimp on the flat top as any of his cooks, flipped just as many pieces of goat. The restaurant's price point is also entirely appealing and, again, refreshing. The past year has taught diners to expect deals, specials, discounted prix fixe menus. While I've certainly been one to partake and I've enjoyed dozens of relatively discounted meals as a result, it's hard to shake the feeling that a lot of what's put on the plate is dumbed down cuisine. Less harshly, it's comfort food meant to put butts in seats even at lower check averages. There's none of that feeling here. Because prices are low portions are quite small, but each plate of food feels like a complete dish. Sure, $4 or $5 for some warm olives or bruschetta or a cone of fries is cheap, but that's not dinner. I'd much rather spend twice that and get a small, beautifully composed plate. The tasting menu here--listed at five courses but if the guests next to us received the typical meal is more like 7--is an entirely reasonable $75 dollars. Better still, diners can compose an entirely manageable five course menu ordering a la carte for a bit less than that. That's what we did and it was really quite perfect, even a bit too much food. The wine list also has plenty of selections in the $30s and $40s. Again, it's nice to feel like you have options in that price range without needing to feel like you must spend twice that to get into the bulk of the list. I dined with my mother, we ordered five different dishes for each of us, allowing us to try 10 different dishes, and spent, all told $120/person. $120 per head isn't a cheap meal, but it would be easy to spend that much on three courses at any number of far less interesting restaurants. The tasting menu (not what we had) is not listed online, but seemed to include the following courses. I'll include them for the sake of reference. -Amuse - Tomato-cherry gazpacho -Foie terrine, nectarines -Cuttlefish (This wasn't mentioned when our server described the tasting menu to us, so perhaps it was a one-off comp to the guests next to us. They didn't seem soignee, so who knows?) -Shrimp -Cod -Duck rice -Strawberry dessert From a pure dollars-and-cents perspective, the tasting menu is the best value for the individual, but it's really not that much worse to order a five-course tasting-of-sorts a la carte. When one considers that tasting portions are half-sized, dining with a companion and sharing actually makes more sense for those who want to try as much as possible. Again, we sampled 10 different dishes. It's also helpful that this is a kitchen that's actually able to send out courses in an ordered, even procession, a luxury that's become much rarer in "small plates' restaurants in the city. I would say we ordered quite well. In fact, Chef Mendes came over and told us so. Seems like a nice guy, but he was surely busy last night. The menu is available online and seems to be accurate. We had these courses in the following progression: -Sea urchin toast/Foie terrine -Tomato-cherry gazpacho/Cured mackerel -Cuttlefish/Peas, egg, and bacon -Duck rice/Goat -Strawberries/Caramelized Brioche In terms of extras, there are petits fours that come with the check. And decent ones at that. No amuse though, which I understand given the low price point, but it would be nice to have an opening bite. I trust Chef Mendes wouldn't make this a throwaway, so it's something like a missed opportunity. Oh well. Our server was perfectly competent, but the runners were somewhat difficult to understand and not fully able to describe the dishes in any detail. I wouldn't say that this restaurant is worth a visit for the space or the service or the amenities, but none of these periphery issues were offensive to the point of detriment. And, thankfully, the food is really the star here. Off the bat, I'll say this isn't Corton or wd~50 in its creativity. It's not EMP or any of the other four-stars with regard to refinement on the plate. But, besides the Momos, I'm hard pressed to think of a restaurant serving food that's this tasty and creative. The sea urchin toast is awesome. The uni panino and Jean-Georges's uni on black bread immediately come to mind as similar dishes. This is better. The cured mackeral was perhaps the surprise hit of the night. At once subtle and silky yet bursting with flavor. In both these dishes there's a distinct Japanese slant with the inclusion of shiso and soy sauce and seaweed. The peas, eggs, and bacon with summer truffle trades this subtlety and just delivers huge hits of umami and smoke and salt. Totally delicious and satisfying. These three dishes were awesome. The cuttlefish didn't quite reach this level, but it was probably the most beautiful plate of food of the evening. The squid ink sauce with the red mentaiko and a light yellow coconut-curry foam was striking. Had the restaurant used a higher quality mentaiko and thicker pieces of cuttlefish, this dish would've been unimpeachable. I also very much enjoyed the duck rice, especially how the rice managed to be so flavorful yet maintain its integrity and texture, but didn't find it that different from a good paella. The various duck components were nice, but this is a dish I think I could recreate reasonably well at home. The plate left the kitchen without the apricot jam garnish, but the server noticed this and quickly brought over a small ramekin's worth. The only kitchen misstep of the evening. Another half-step down from the duck rice and cuttlefish were the gazpacho and foie terrine. I wanted a bigger hit of cherry in the gazpacho; the only fruit came from slices of strawberry in the soup itself. Still, with the inclusion of the mozzarella spherications, this was a very tasty, interesting chilled soup. The foie terrine was a bit underseasoned to me, and I wasn't impressed with the quality of the nectarine itself. It was difficult for me to drive out the memory EMP's spectacular foie-plum dish. While Aldea's dish was unobjectionable, it paled next to EMP's. This, too, was the only dish where I was skeptical of the price tag. $18 for a smallish slice of terrine wasn't extortionate, but it wasn't exactly generous either. I'd like to reserve special commentary for the goat. Probably the least tasty dish of the night, especially for those who aren't big on gamey meats. With that said, I really enjoyed and respected this plate of food. It's refreshing to see a restaurant offer a more European-style meat course, where rather than receiving a single loin piece, various parts of the animal are showcased. The ballsy inclusion of a sizable chunk of what I believe what was goat liver was not missed on me. With the grassy, gaminess of the goat, the somewhat bitter notes of the toasted buckwheat, and the umami from the mushrooms this was a serious plate of food. I'd rather eat the duck rice than this everyday, but I'm glad we got this dish. Technically speaking, the meat was a bit dry, but that's more often than not the case with goat that's not been braised. Desserts were solid, if not quite as impressive as the food. I found the vibrancy of the strawberry sorbet the most impressive part of that multi-component plate. The caramelized brioche is a take on the "French toast" that is everywhere in Spain, and this was a very solid rendition. Perhaps a bit sweet, but the little bits of peppercorn that sat atop the ice cream re-centered the palate. This is one of those few restaurants that I'm really dying to go back to. The combination of the entertainment at the chef's counter, the relatively low price point for both food and wine, the undeniable quality of the food itself, and just enough coddling to make dining comfortable really makes this place, again, a home run.
  7. We can easily enough agree to disagree on that. I found no difference in spirit or length of meal, or anything else appreciable for that matter between the 8 course menu at LeB and the 11 course at EMP. All things equal, I prefer to try 11 things vs. 8 things, sure. But they both seemed the same in style to me - "here is our best, enjoy!" ← Until you see the table next to yours getting 13 or more dishes, some of which are not on the menu... But I do agree with you on the point of the 8 vs. 11 having no effect on the overall merit a restaurant is likely to garner from me. To answer my own question that I posed to Bryan above, I have had <10-course meals that were absolutely 4-star like. Conversely, I have had many >10-course meals that couldn't hold a candle to any one dish that I've had at Le Bernardin or Eleven Madison Park, for example. ← Surely a four-star meal can have fewer courses. And I've surely had long meals that either fell flat and sucked or simply weren't trying to be four-star. But in my ideal world, I like at least 12 courses, all of them awesome, with the brand of service Per Se and EMP have seemingly nailed: young, friendly, fluid, discrete, knowledgeable. And we'll have to agree to disagree on this point, my friend. l'Arpege is not exactly the formal fare that I come to expect from a Michelin 3-star in Paris. I don't need stiff - in fact, I find Ms. Cousin's brand of service quite refreshing in its frankness. Very much like the easy-going, laid back feeling I get from the staff at Eleven Madison Park, actually. And, if you are to cite attire as a contributing factor to qualifying a "fine dining" experience, then I fail to see how you can possibly classify l'Arpege (or any of the three-stars in Paris these days, for that matter) as fine dining. The clients there are no more dressed up than those I've seen at Eleven Madison Park, if not more casually so. Edited to add: Perhaps Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athenee is an exception to the rest of the Parisian three-stars. From my understanding, it remains quite formal. ← Yeah, if anything people in Europe, especially in those countryside temples to gastronomy, ought to dress up more. Granted, Spain and Italy are more casual than France, but shorts at lunch at Mugaritz were not uncommon. I didn't take the meal any less seriously even if I was in a jacket, the gentleman next to me was in shorts and a t-shirt, and the table next to that was filled with men in full suits.
  8. What's the difference? (I'm not arguing here, I'm just curious what you find the distinguishing point.) Is it the length, which you cite above as allowing for more creativity and variety? Coming from another angle, have you had a 10+ course meal that didn't feel "extended/VIP" to you? ← I guess it's largely an intangible thing. I hate to rely on that crutch, but I think a bit part of it is service style along with the number of courses. Take, for instance, canapes at Daniel or the trio of amuses at JG. They're fine, but aren't as elegant as the canapes you get at Per Se, EMP, or any number of two- and three-star spots in Europe. I haven't been to LeB in several years, so I'm not sure what they're doing now, but in my mind a proper fine-dining experience should have a series of small bites, then perhaps an amuse, then a small opening course or two before finally getting to the bulk of the meal. Similarly, I like EMP's elegant presentation of its macaroons, the sturdy sleeve of pate de fruit with its understated silver printing and logo. I like seeing the champagne cart being wheeled around the room. I like the theater of it all. I'm not even necessarily promoting a certain restaurant as much as I am a certain type of dining experience that feels special/VIP. I like but don't love or feel any emotional connection to Per Se, for instance, yet I still feel that it's the best overall restaurant in the city.
  9. But of course in the same piece Achatz admits that even his original system has its flaws now that he's doing more and more cutting edge stuff (i.e., tabletop plating). Some people will inevitably get more for certain reasons. I'm talking about the experience that's offered/listed on the menu.
  10. Without throwing too much fuel on the fire, I find the listed menu at Per Se to fall under the extended/VIP-style that the Gourmand at EMP offers. I do not think the longer menus, as listed, at the other four-stars qualify. That's the point I was trying to make. What these restaurants can do for VIPs/regulars/or those who arrange for a special meal from the chef beforehand isn't really my concern in this case.
  11. BryanZ

    Zuni Cafe

    I believe that's 3/4 tsp per pound. At least that's what the recipes online say.
  12. Just so we're clear my recent meal at Manresa was certainly more interesting and eye-opening than my meal here. I, too, think it's one of the best restaurants in the country, just not on the same level as the grand dining temples with regards to room, service polish, and other niceties. I think a Michelin inspector would agree with me here. I'm not willing to come down on which meal was tastier, though. Both put consistently excellent to extraordinary food on the plate. EMP, however, was certainly the much more refined dining experience across the board. That's no slight to Manresa. At all. Alinea is, well, Alinea. To me, it hits all the sweet spots and is in a class of its own. ETA: For the sake of clarity, I was at Manresa for the first time very recently and had a ridiculous meal there. My report is here.
  13. Yes, part of me certainly appreciates the fine-dining formula, but I guess I want to see it executed or embraced at the highest level so it doesn't feel tired, amateur, or even formulaic in the derogatory sense of that word. Somewhere like Daniel, a great restaurant to be sure, or any of the restaurants you mention embody luxury and all that but, to me, fall well short of EMP. In that sense there is something kind of intangible, a four-star feeling of sorts. I think EMP now gives off this feeling. What makes me recommend it so highly goes beyond this, however, in that I think they offer what might be called a VIP-four-star-experience to anyone willing to order the Gourmand menu.
  14. It is possible for the first time diner to experience the tasting menus at both Jean Georges and Le Bernardin. In my opinion the experiences at both these restaurants is far superior than that at EMP ← Oh surely, but that's not the point I'm making. I think there's a some kind of fundamental divide between your typical 6-8 course tasting menu and those that run over 12-courses*. I think there's a certain intricacy and feeling of luxurious discovery that one gets over so many courses that holds a lot of value for me. In this same vein, EMP seems to offer many of those little extras that are the mark of a true fine-dining experience, i.e., the champagne cart, gougeres, a full round of canapes, a wide selection of macaroons, a high-quality parting gift (no bread or dessert trolley though). The point I was making is that EMP is one of, in my mind, two restaurants that can offer all this to a first-time diner. I'm not arguing that Per Se can't do better, but this kind of experience is not typical for non-regulars/non-industry. Similarly, I'm not arguing that other restaurants can't offer a similarly luxurious and complete fine-dining meal, they just don't offer it printed on their menus. *There's something that feels so formulaic about shorter tasting menus. ulteriorepicure has a post about this on his blog that's worth reading if you feel similarly.
  15. Indeed, I do believe that the "other" four stars can put out such a meal, but it's not on offer for those who simply stroll through the door. While I think I dine quite well, I'm not in a position to be a true regular at any of those spots. A visit every six months to EMP is about my peak. With that said, I think that EMP and Per Se are the only restaurants that offer this refined and lengthy a dining experience to the first time diner. I, too, have only been served sparkling wine cocktails in flutes in restaurants. Indeed, the coupe seems to be more popular in Serious Cocktail Bars, but in restaurants I can see why the flute is seen as more elegant. Returning to sickchangup's query about the smoke, yeah it was a bit awkward. We rolled with it, but I remarked to my girlfriend (who was not at the meal) about the whole procedure. She quickly pronounced it kind of weird. I guess, to me, being there it wasn't weird--this was not my first smoke-under-cloche presentation--so it to me it wasn't that different from any other tableside presentaion. I could see how the somewhat staged unveiling and wafting might be a bit strange. I don't smoke, so cigars and dishes like this are as close as I'll come. I take what I can get?
  16. I didn't have an issue with the halibut sauce. It was loose nut with all the veg and especially the corn it felt almost like a chowder to me. I did get the sleeve of sweets. It was nice, but the most noteworthy thing about it was the design of the sleeve itself. A high quality item right there. I've never Ben VIP'd at Per Se but I don't think there's another restaurant in the city that offers such an extended menu. Perhaps Ko at lunch, which is similar in that you don't know the dishes going in. I think the kitchen here is great but I'm not sure thy can put out as many dishes as Per Se's. Perhaps calling and letting them know might get you new dishes but for a non-regular who knows?
  17. Last Thursday I was in for the Gourmand menu, a send-off sorts for my sister and I. Although it's been said for years now and most recently confirmed by Bruni, this is a restaurant that has continued to improve. It's inspiring to see a restaurant and chef continuously raise their standards, transforming a very good restaurant into an extraordinary one. I've long believed that EMP was one of the top tables in the city and this visit only served to reaffirm my feelings. With the possible exception of Per Se (and possibly Masa, to which I haven't been), this is the most refined dining experience in the city. I'm still of the opinion that the room, while pretty, is too large but the attentiveness of the staff makes the experience feel more intimate. I think this is an unmitigated success for USHG as an organization, as its people overcome what in the past was a complaint of mine. It's unusual for me to describe the service first when recounting a meal, but I think it's here where the largest strides have been made. I've loved Chef Humm's food for years and while his is not as modern nor punchy as some of my other favorite chefs, it has and continues to be full of elegance. Again, where the experience of a meal at EMP has most improved is in the intangibles, the china and serviceware, the demeanor and polish of the servers, the fluidity of motion. Again, with the exception of Per Se, this is the extremely rare NYC restaurant in which servers all speak fully intelligible English. If I'm going to be really picky I will say that the uniforms aren't quite as nicely tailored and spotless across the board as they are at Per Se, but not to any detriment and certainly on par with the other four-star restaurants. I might as well note that some people might find these new service standards a bit stilted. My cocktail was carefully turned and presented such that the mint garnish was centered at 12 o'clock. The servers, as I read in a recent interview, actually do set each charger initially so that the logo is properly oriented. I love this kind of thing, but to some perhaps a bit much. I should note our captain was great, as were the frontwaiters who dropped the food from time to time. Really, excellent service throughout. Anyway, onto the food. It was a beautifully presented meal, showing the full range of Chef Humm's repertoire. Some new dishes, some variants on items I've had in the past. People have criticized Humm for not evolving his cooking as much as a young chef should, but I'm not sure I agree with this. He clearly has a style and sweet spot all his own, and his version of innovation is more subtle than those chefs that thrive on the cutting edge. The menu was presented to us after the meal in a little caviar tin. Quite cute-- let's be honest though, I'd rather have more caviar--but difficult to scan or take a picture of. So, I'll type it verbatim along with a picture of each dish because I'm nice like that. These dishes have been reported on in various past posts, but here it is, in full. Canapes They've been doing variants on these for a while now. Always nice. All were excellent. We then moved to cocktails. Some kind of Grand Marnier-grapefruit-sparkling wine thing that was sweet, bitter, and quite nice. Also, my Creole Julep was very delicious and well-made. It was not long after that when the first course arrived. And so, we were off. Sterling royal caviar, panna cotta with Columbia River sturgeon I thought this dish was just freaking fantastic. While the caviar itself wasn't quite as good as what I'd had at Manresa a few days before, the dish itself was just so luxurious and decadent. A nice layer of caviar, then a whipped layer of what I'm guessing was sturgeon, then a lobster gelee at the bottom. The gelee was so intense and worked wonderfully with the briny caviar. The potato blini were replaced halfway through our enjoyment of the course. Very brioche-at-Per-Se-like. This might have been my favorite dish of the evening. Heirloom tomatoes, part one Twin spherications of mozzarella and tomatoes. I much preferred this combo to the goat cheese/beet they present in the winter. The tomato s'fer was awesome, so intense and pure in flavor. Heirloom tomatoes, cloud with Terre Bormane olive oil and fino verde basil There was more to this dish than just the cloud, but since that's what's listed I'll discuss it first. What the kitchen does is make a tomato-flavored meringue which is then set with gelatin. This cloud is placed above a chilled soup of sorts of super intense grape-sized tomatoes. So clean and refreshing. The rectangular plate showcases a thick slice of beefsteak tomato topped with a thick tomato puree. This was very intense, even meaty, but tasted a bit too much like pizza sauce for me. Tasty but not as good as the other two components. Finally, there was a tomato sorbet topped with a French savory granola. This was my favorite part of the dish. So savory, so full in flavor. Just awesome. Santa Barbara sea urchin, cappuccino with peekytoe crab and cauliflower A beautiful yet stark plate. This dish was another favorite of mine. Essence of ocean with the occasional creamy, earthy hit from the cauliflower puree at the bottom of the dish. This dish might've been served just a touch too cool, something that came up in other dishes. If there were any execution issues with the food, this, though slight, was it. Foie gras, mille-feuille with Greenmarket plums, umeboshi and bitter almonds Such a beautiful plate. There was was sliced plum and pickled plum and plum gelee and pickled onions and almond gel and bitter greens. This, too, was awesome. Atlantic halibut, seared with sweet corn, summer radishes and purslane A wonderful summery fish dish that was at once light yet satisfying. I think Humm's sauce work here was spot-on. He has this thing for subtle curry-like flavors that play well well with seafood. I'm not sure I quite understood the presence of the radish, but I'm a big radish fan, so I enjoyed them. The freeze dried corn was unexpected but totally made the dish. Crunchy bits of texture were strewn throughout. Nova Scotia lobster, poached with lemon verbena and the flavors or ratatouille This dish was old-school, those three quenelles of zucchini, eggplant, and red pepper definitely had a retro quality to them. This dish was completely luxurious and delicious but made less of an impact on me overall. Impeccably prepared, any restaurant would be proud to serve this dish, it just didn't seem quite as fun. Everglades frogs legs, ragout with black truffles and vin jaune sabayon A very, very interesting dish. The earthy truffle notes made for a cool pairing with the green vin jaune that I forever associate with Jean-Georges's Chateau Chalon sauce. The flavor profile here wasn't nearly so round and sweet, definitely tending toward the earthier, even a bit bitter. I totally dug this, but I can't say it would appeal to everyone. Again, this dish was just a couple degrees cooler than I would've liked. 72-hour pork belly, black truffle, smoke This dish wasn't listed on the menu, but it seems like they've been trying it out for the past few weeks on people who order the Gourmand. The super earthy, super smoky flavor was, predictably, a home run with me. The black truffle puree reminded me of L'Astrance, but the big hit of woodsmoke--from under the glass cloche and in the meat itself--gave it a solidly American foundation. Loved this dish. Elysian Fields Farm Lamb, herb roasted with sheep's milk tart, garbanzo beans and bacon As fchrisgrimm noted, it's hard not to lust after a plate of food like this. Like French comfort food, retooled and refined. This, like the lobster, had a more retro vibe but was a more successful dish overall. The spherized olives presented tableside added a pleasant briny bitter note to the dish. Not among my favorites of the evening, but I could see how someone with different tastes than mine would see this dish as a triumph of all that is good about contemporary French cooking. Cheese course The cheese cart was presented and we had our waiter made three plates for us. They were delicious, but I will say that the cart at Manresa, though much smaller, had a couple more interesting selections. Nothing to be ashamed of here, though. "Strawberries & Champagne," strawberry sorbet, lemon gelee and champagne emulsion A wonderful pre-dessert that managed to be light yet also bursting with flavor. The champagne was not toned down in the slightest, allowing the yeasty, bubbly notes to play off the sweet, syrupy macerated berries. Jivara chocolate, moelleux with vanilla, olive oil and cocoa reaspberry sorbet I've yet to meet a chocolate dessert that I completely swoon over though this was a very solid effort. Really no complaints at all. The cocoa-raspberry sorbet was the best part, managing to be both fruity and rich all at once. Summer melons, honey dew, cantaloupe, watermelon and citrus tapioca My mother opted out of a chocolate dessert and instead received this. This was a nice take on a fruit dessert and one that avoided the somewhat overdone pairing of tapioca with exotic fruits, instead opting for melons. Very light and refreshing. Macaroons There were many, my favorites were the passion fruit, popcorn, and black sesame. Besides the cocktails we ordered wines by the glass. Nice selections throughout, but I was particularly impressed by a 1996 nebbiolo. A really interesting choice for a the glass list and I was very glad to have tried it. Besides a couple glasses a completely serviceable (and affordable) glass of banyuls carried me through the sweets. This was, without any shadow of a doubt, a four-star meal. Certainly among the best meals I've had in this fair city. In fact, all of my lengthy tasting menu meals at EMP are among the best meals I've had in this city. While Humm is not so innovative as Dufrense or Liebrandt and arguably lacks the landmark dishes of Jean-Georges or Ripert, he, as I've written before, occupies this happy middle ground that is fully with merit. Both Will Guidara and Chef Humm stopped by during the course of the evening and couldn't have been nicer. This restaurant is awesome and without a doubt provides one of the great dining experiences this city has to offer.
  18. The Mission one. My friend lives in the Castro so we walked down there. Between Tartine and Bi-Rite and Delfina I'm hard-pressed to complain about that little strip.
  19. Bi-Rite and Slocombe are so freaking delicious, though quite different when it comes down to it. I loved, loved, loved the Secret Breakfast at Slocombe. It was one of my favorite ice cream, well, ever. With that said, a lot of that shop's appeal is its novelty. I'd take out of town visitors there. Bi-Rite on the other hand just puts out perfectly textbook ice cream. Great texture, pure flavors, not too sweet, just an impressive product from both taste and technical perspective. I don't see how anyone could not like the ricanellas flavor, and the strawberry-balsamic just made so much sense that it didn't feel like a new flavor at all, more like an old friend who I wish I'd known my whole life.
  20. BryanZ

    Zuni Cafe

    My last of three dinners on my trip to SF was at Zuni Cafe. It's a landmark, an institution, and makes a pretty tasty chicken. I had to partake. Obviously people go back and forth about this chicken. I thought it was pretty freaking tasty. The vibe of the whole restaurant is a bit too granola for me, but I can't argue with what was on the plate. The thigh and drumstick of the chicken that was served to me was probably the best roasted chicken I've ever had. The brine or whatever they use made its way all the way into the meat, yet it refrained from being too salty as is sometimes the case. The crispy bread salad and currants and pine nuts only sweetened the deal. This was a no silverware kind of affair. A nice bottle of wine, and I was so happy. Totally comfort food, totally delicious. To begin we had a rabbit salad with purslane. A really nice dish, I will say. It was rather small, though. If I were hungrier I might've felt a bit cheated, but I'm sure the ingredients were local and sustainable and organic and all that. Mainly I was so full from the previous days of eating that it was cool with me. Now people debate the value of the chicken. At $48 it's not cheap, but it's not particularly expensive either. Just like I can buy a porterhouse for $20 and grill it myself rather than pay $80 at a steakhouse, I could buy a nice chicken for $12 instead of paying $48 at Zuni. Each situation has its merits. This time around I was more than happy to pay my $24 for my share of chicken and would certainly do it again.
  21. Made my first visit here two weekends ago and really enjoyed the experience. People know about Chris Cosentino for his offal cookery and that's why I visited, but I was pleased to discover how he's created a truly comfortable restaurant. It's like a neighborhood spot with a national reputation. Nothing here is particularly luxurious or refined, but they get the job done in an entirely satisfying way. The restaurant also isn't particularly expensive. Loved the mystery wine flight for $15, three short pours of different Italian wines. My friend and I partook and each were served different selections, allowing us to try six wines between the two of us. Can't complain with that. Food was well-paced and our server actually, and rightly, encouraged us to order less after I expressed worry given how much we'd been eating. Rather than get the full size pasta, he suggested we get a half portion. It was the perfect amount. So, the menu the other day looked like this. If I'm being totally honest I perhaps wanted a bit more offal, but then again that would've been too much for us to eat. Cosentino giveth, indigestion taketh away. To start we had the heirloom tomatoes with roasted eggplant and nduja vinaigrette and the beef heart tartare. Both dishes were great. Nduja hasn't quite made it out to the Right Coast--you see it mentioned on NYC-centric food blogs and people are still floored by the concept--but there is now a nice sausage's worth sitting in my fridge. It's freaking delicious and makes everything taste just so meaty and spiced. The tomatoes were beautiful, especially coming from the blighted, heirloom-starved mid-Atlantic. The tartare was offal in name alone. Besides being a bit more assertive in beefiness, I can't see how any beef lover could take issue with this dish. It was textbook. Next we had the trotter ravioli with foie gras. The cresta di gallo referred not to the inclusion of cockscombs but to the shape of the pasta, I believe. This was like a reimagined take on tortellini en brodo. If anything I thought the trotter filling should have been more assertive, but the full-flavored broth and nuggets of foie alleviated this. A nice middle course. Along with the pasta came our order of the lamb fries. Our waiter confirmed that we knew what these were before ordering, so those expecting little lamb nuggets or whatever aren't surprised. I really like them. Reminiscent of sweetbreads but not quite as custardy, more spongy and firm. They had a bit of an offaly funk on the back end that I liked with the tang of the lemon, but my friend wasn't a huge fan. Probably the most hardcore dish on the menu, it could hardly be called offensive. Finally, we had the braised pork shoulder with grilled and pickled peaches and rucola. A nicely executed classic, with a slightly update Californian flare. The sugar and acid from the fruit really helped the dish. The spicing on the pork was quite aggressive but worked well with everything else. What I'd call a Beautiful Plate of Food. We also ordered a side of braised greens with anchovy and panagrattato. This was perhaps the weakest item of the night. Which isn't to say that it wasn't good, it just wasn't quite as tasty as the rest of the dishes. The bitter greens were nice but the anchovy flavor was fully integrated into the braising liquid, making the dish feel a bit disjointed. I had wanted to try to bread pudding, but, alas, they were out. Oh well. I'm pretty sure it was something like $60/person all in. Quite reasonable. If I actually live in SF I'd be here all the time.
  22. Just thought I'd note that Delfina Pizzeria is quite good. Had a carbonara special pie and a margherita. Both fully enjoyable. Light sauce, cutesy condiments on the table, grissini that were actually crispy and had flavor. The dough is more worked than true Neapolitan style so you've got a bit more chew and some crisp rather than soft, pillowyness. Made for a perfect pre-lunch. No traditional pizzaiola would shape the dough like they do, though. They pinch the the crust to form bubbles. Kind of strange, but it makes the product unique. Fairly priced, cute waitress, and not even a wood-fired brick oven!
  23. A little over a week ago I made my first visit to Manresa. In a word: fantastic. The meal to me was simultaneously a return and a climax. A return in that it was about three years ago that I made my first foodcentric visit to California and the PNW. Though I had planned to visit the restaurant, I was unable to due to time constraints. A climax in that the meal was the very embodiment of those facets of Californian and Pacific Northwestern cooking that I've gotten to know and come to respect in the years since. Forgive the broad brushstrokes, but there's a lightness of touch and a seemingly deeper respect for ingredients that NYC chefs don't quite match. I'm not saying that this is necessarily better, just different. I should note that a friend of mine known to the restaurant made our reservation, so we ate a lot. All in, 22 courses. Yeah, it was ridiculous. It was also very expensive. Not VIP-menu-at-French-Laundry-expensive, but with minimal drinking we spent $300 each. I believe the food portion of the bill was $195 per person. Again, we had a friend of the house call on our behalf, but I believe most anyone could reserve and ask the kitchen to pull out all the stops. Unfortunately, our camera felt the need to stay at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing while we soldiered on through other imbibing stops that afternoon, so I'm without pictures. The restaurant is actually quite dim, perhaps overly so, I'm not sure my pictures would've been any good in the end. I do, however, have a copy of the menu. The Summer Garden Again, it was a lot. Before discussing any of the dishes in detail, I must first speak to the overall arc of the meal. It managed to be both thought-provoking and creative yet also plainly grounded in the terroir of California. More exciting than Blue Hill at Stone Barns but not so intellectual as the likes of wd~50 or Alinea. Those Asian influences that repeatedly surface in Kinch's cooking felt entirely appropriate. Those dishes that evoked Japan did so so strongly that I felt I was there. Yet they still managed to also feel entirely Californian. The meal repeatedly presented dishes that managed to be entirely one thing and also entirely something else. The skill with which this seeming contradiction was handled was perhaps what impressed me most about the meal. Given the meal's length there were dishes that were more successful than others. Those that, to me, were less tasty were extremely novel, however. They presented preparations and ingredients that I had never encountered before. There were also the dishes that seemed almost brazenly simple. Perhaps predictably, these were among the very tastiest. I'm of the opinion that this is three Michelin/4 NYT star food. Again, not all of our dishes were home runs, but given the nature of this particular menu that's not at all a complaint. With some editing, this meal could easily have been four-star dish after four-star dish. In this category of awesomeness were the following dishes: Tomatoes, barely cooked, flowering coriander with horse mackeral Plum and chanterelles, just pressed walnut oil with foie gras Arpege farm egg Mar y muntanya: Sunchokes with buckwheat, caviar from Iran Chaud-froid of sea urchin, saffron, cocoa, exotic citrus, Young squash shoots and beans in bonito butter, toasted seeds Local albacore with morels and chervil, sweet onion-marrow broth Porcelet and boudin noir, Gravenstein apple with celtuce Assorted plums, both raw and roasted, goat's milk fromage blanc Particular attention needs to be called to the caviar, bonito butter, and onion-marrow broth. The latter two sauces were quite haunting. And while I'm usually not one to swoon for caviar, this understated yet luxurious preparation really showcased an excellent product. None are tastes I'll be forgetting anytime soon. In most restaurants the above dishes might comprise a tasting menu right there, and these were the dishes that I thought were truly extraordinary. The watercress veloute, Into the vegetable garden..., and spot prawns with nasturtium ice cream were dishes that really played to the pleasing, bitter green flavors and helped the meal from getting too heavy or one-note. I actually wasn't totally in love with the flavors presented in the Into the vegetable garden... course but felt a profound respect for the plate of food. I feel bad not mentioning a few of the others as they were universally excellent but can only wax poetic for so long. The only dish that I thought fell short was the wood pigeon one. This bird had been hung for ten days, so the flavor was very pronounced. This, along with the accompaniments, I totally dug. Although the server told us that the aging process had toughened up the skin, to the point where he even recommended removing it, this was very difficult to do. The flavor of the skin itself was actually quite good, but its sinewy, leathery texture might have been a bit much for most diners. I'm assuming this dish was unique to the special menu we received. Am super happy I got to try it, even if it was perhaps the least enjoyable dish of the night. I suppose my only critical comment on the food generally is more stylistic than anything else. I was actually looking for a bigger punch in the meat courses. The pigeon was very interesting and the pork was of amazing quality, but taken together didn't quite give me the meaty, saucy payoff I was expecting. This is an atypical comment for me to make, but perhaps it was Kinch's lightness of touch all the way through the meal that had me craving something a bit heartier. There was more than enough food overall, but I don't feel like my comment is a particularly novel one. People commonly note similar desires at Alinea, minibar, and wd~50, but I find the extreme novelty of the food at such restaurants is enough to keep me sated, so to speak. As Manresa serves more traditional cuisine, perhaps my expectations weren't fully calibrated. Service throughout was extremely friendly, though slightly lacking in the structure and fluidity that one finds at the best, more formal restaurants. For instance, it appears they don't use the captain system, as the individuals in suits who stopped by to chat seemed to be management and wine personnel. None of this detracted explicitly from the meal, though if pressed I'd be inclined to prefer a more formal style of service. The same might also be said of the dining room. People give Per Se a lot of grief for being in a glorified shopping mall. Manresa is in a glorified strip mall. Again, not exactly a slight once diners are inside, but there's no climbing mountain roads, venturing off-piste through vineyards or farmlands to arrive. And at least Per Se has views of Central Park. The dining room, similarly, is quite simple. I guess contemporary California chic. Comfortable but not luxurious. The only off-putting thing to me were the carpets. I used dock Jean Georges points for the same before its renovation and must do the same here. The rugs on the floors here are rather worn and don't exactly fit with the decor. I know it's kind of a random thing to gripe about, but if there was one thing for the restaurant to improve it would be the flooring situation. Surely there's a good reason for their being there--noise reduction, anti-slip?--but they could be upgraded. Despite these minor complaints, this meal certainly deserves to be discussed among the very best I've had in this country. Alinea still reigns supreme, and I think I appreciated the theater and luxury at Guy Savoy in Las Vegas more. Besides those restaurants, however, Manresa is certainly up there. Just a few days ago I had the full "Gourmand" tasting menu at the newly four-starred Eleven Madison Park. While EMP and its four-star brethren offer up a more refined experience, what Manresa puts on the plate strikes this a finely tuned balance between French, Japanese, Mediterranean, farm-to-table, modern, and traditional. And it does all this without seeming contrived or trying to be all things to all people. With a few capital improvements Manresa could certainly be among the greatest restaurants in this country. For now, it just puts out some of the best food.
  24. Thoughts on the pizza del papa? Did you find any of the extra toppings distracting?
  25. Sounds about right to me. And based on early reports it seems that there's still a lot of variability in the experience that diners can have. We've always known that Bruni has kept abreast with blog chatter, but in the recent weeks he's been more forthcoming about how plugged in he was to the rest of the critical sphere, professional and amateur. Perhaps divergent opinions of his own and of others made him pass.
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