Jimmy and the Fish

Thursday, April 30, 2009 0 comments

Jimmy and the Fish

Cuisine: Fish and seafood classics
Athens Area: Piraeus, Mikrolimano, right on the water
Decor: Maritime classic, soothing view
Service: A little rough around the edges
Wine List: Good, Greek, reasonably priced
Prices: 40-55 euro a person
Address: Koumoundourou 46, Mikrolimano
Tel. 210 412 4417
Right after Easter and a week of languishing on the Island of Longevity (Ikaria) I came back to Athens still in vacation mode. I wanted to bask in the feeling of being a tourist in my adopted city, so, together with family freshly arrived from abroad, we headed to the trap of all tourists, Mikrolimano, and to an old standard bearer of sea-view cuisine, Jimmy and the Fish. This, of course, after driving past more than a few waiters with menus in their hand, out on the traffic-clogged quay, saying things like “Fis [sic] for giou]” and “kam een, ouee park.” The parking, it turns out, is a cooperative affair shared between all the restaurants along the water, since the guy who took my keys asked me which restaurant I’d be at. One thing I was glad for: we were the only “tourists” at Jimmy’s. Everyone else seemed as Greek as could be, folks who know the place, might be regulars, and come not only the view of docks and yachts but also for more than decent food in a place that’s survived the waves for nearly two decades.

Jimmy doesn’t serve up the most innovative fish cuisine in town (that’s the domain of stars like Varoulko and Milos); rather it serves up an accessible menu of greatest hits that pair well with gregarious conversation and a good bottle of Mantineia Tselepou, which is what we had with dinner. The menu is big and most of the fish offerings are frozen, but at least they are honest about it. The starters include a wide array of classics, such as marinated anchovies (gavros), sea urchin salad, seafood salad, grilled octopus, classic feta-stuffed squid and more. We tried the classic fried squid, which were fresh not frozen that day and very good—crunchy thanks to a thick batter coating and very tender within. They come served with remoulade. One non-fish thing we sampled was actually not that great, even though it’s simple enough to make: grilled pleurotus mushrooms. They had a slightly bitter aftertaste and were a little rubbery. But the grillman did a great job on the fresh sardines, butterflied and boned and served with a generous topping of slightly charred onions. I can eat that any time.

Two cooked dishes we tried were above average but far from haute: the risotto with saffron, salmon roe (brik) and langoustines was toothsome and too fluffy to be thought of as a proper risotto, more pilaf than risotto to these taste buds. The ravioli stuffed with seafood and ricotta was better and more comforting, recalling memories of fun meals in nonseaside locales like New York’s Little Italy. The portion was very generous, the filling tasty, the sauce a little too thick but not bad.

Here ended our cruise of Jimmy’s menu, without a dock stop at the panacotta, brownies, tarte tatin or crème brulee that are in the dessert section of the menu.

The service here is a little gruff, the waiters a little rough around the edges without being outright rude though, kind of like sailors on their best behavior in some exotic port of call.

Cuisine: Haute Franco-Grecque
Athens Area: 30 min. north of the city in Kifissia, accessible by train, bus, taxi
Decor: Gorgeous, stately setting inside one of the city's best museums
Service: Very good
Wine list: Excellent and international
Prices: Prix Fixe at 45 euro w/o wine (6 plates courses, change weekly)
Address: Goulandris Museum of Natural History, 100 Othonos str., Kifissia, Tel.: 2108015112

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Nonna Pina

Tuesday, April 28, 2009 0 comments
One of the things I love about this city is its serendipity and the sometimes surreality of living here. The chance encounters on the street, the chance discoveries of pretty good restaurants in unlikely places. That’s a little how I felt after visiting Nonna Pina, an Italian restaurant in Daphne that’s decidedly gourmet despite its working-class-neighborhood environs. Nonna Pina is an anomaly, slightly out of place but worth the trip thanks mainly to the able hands of its chef, one seniorita Angela.

The décor reminds me a little of the houses of Italian American friends in the 1960s, a little kitsch but cozy and filled with the effort to look good. White, red, and wall-covering prints of a female face replete with plumed hat make up the décor here. The room is elevated above the street, right on a corner, so that if you sit by the window you are literally sitting over a stream of traffic whizzing by.

Our hostess was obviously filled with pride over the quality of food served forth from her kitchen. Right after the Prosecco arrived, so did two delicious wedges of bruschetta, topped with marinated mushrooms. Molto bene. So was the foccacia in the bread basket, topped with caramelized onions, rosemary and tomatoes.

Our meal veered from classics like vitello tonnato, very thin slices of veal arranged over a rich tuna sauce to not so classics like a broad-bean and ricotta puree. The vitello tonnato was very good, the veal as tender as it gets and the presentation a little different from the norm, as the meat was fanned out over the sauce, topped with a few crunchy caper berries. The broad bean puree was less successful but interesting nonetheless, a velvety mixture of whipped fresh broad beans and ricotta (the cheese was lost on us) topped with shrimp. The original called for a topping of clams, but these were unavailable the day we went.

I liked the simplest things best here, namely the delicious roasted chicken that was tender and very well seasoned, with just the right amount of peppery heat. The simple steamed potatoes that accompany it were a perfect foil. My stuffed tsipoura was less of a hit mainly because the chef seemed to be trying too hard—there was way too much happening on the plate: fish fillets with a farci of shrimp puree, accompanied by cubed zucchini and other vegetables and a sweet orange-honey sauce. We sampled one pasta dish, the orecchiete with avgotaraho, which needed just a minute or so longer in the pot to move it out of “almost uncooked” and into the al dente zone, but the avgotaraho was generous and the simplicity of the plate just right.

Dessert follows the rich line here. We tried the Semifreddo of strawberries and porto, which was very good and very sinful. Espresso, of course, came on the heels of that, a much needed balance to an Italian-wine-and-prosecco filled night in this unusual place.

Cuisine: Innovative trattoria fare
Athens Area: The working class neighborhood of Daphne
Decor: comfortable kitsch
Service: Warm, friendly, enthusiastic
Wine List: good, Italian
Prices: 35-46 euro per person
Address: 64 Ethn. Makariou str., Daphne, Tel.: 2109021118
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Mazomos Taverna

Sunday, April 26, 2009 0 comments
In this newfound sense of mission to find cheap eats that taste good, most of the times I’ve been lucky. Sometimes, though, the formula just doesn’t work!

That’s a little how we felt the other night at Mazoma, a family style taverna in Maroussi whose owners have ties to Naxos and bring meats, cheeses and recipes from the island to your plate. But I hoped for something more, simple yes, but more authentic, in the vain of so many Cretan restaurants that have opened up in town over the last few years. Ever the optimist, I though the idea of regional cuisine is spreading its wings beyond Crete and the few Politika restaurants that currently monopolize the localized food scent.

Naxos has an illustrious culinary history thanks to the island’s own fecundity and to its rich history. Naxos cheeses, meats, potatoes and more are famed throughout the Aegean and the rest of Greece. Unfortunately, none of this richness was evident on the menu or in the quality of the actual food we were served. I was happy to see that Mazomos keeps a fair number of Lenten dishes throughout Sarakosti, and we concentrated on these. They were out of revithokeftedes (chick pea patties), so we ordered the kolokithopastitsa (a zucchini dish) in their stead. I liked the sound of this dish and reminded me of a dish I love to make from Samos: pumpkin and onions cooked to a caramelized perfection in the skillet. The Samos version has feta; in Naxos apparently they add hot peppers. The taste was fine but the dish came out slightly burnt from less than artful frying and soft as baby food. The salad was pretty good, a mix of lettuce and what seemed like home-made sun dried tomatoes. We ordered the dolmades, which the waiter promised were also homemade but that seemed to me in murky, mushy taste and texture, and glistening appearance to have made a pitstop somewhere between Apirantho (a town in the mountain reaches of Naxos) and the Zanae factory in Northern Greece. I can’t say for sure, but they certainly didn’t taste like mom’s. Ditto on the cuttlefish and spinach, one of the masterpieces of Greek Lenten fare when done well. A grey blob of mucousy slop when done poorly. The second, infortunately, characterized ours. A leftover from Kathara Deftera (Clean Monday, the Greek equicalent of Ash Wednesday and the official start of Lent) that had been zapped in the microwave? Maybe…

The pasta with shrimp was also banal, although the shrimp was fresh. What can I say? I feel for people who run restaurants in these trying times; this place obviously has a clientele—it was half full on a Wednesday night. Its rustic look, with wood, koreloudes, pictures of the island and knick knacks from another era appeal to a certain diner. That’s all fine. My advice: Just improve the food. Cheap or not, we left almost everything on the plate.

Cuisine: Rustic fare from Naxos
Athens Area: Maroussi (accessible by taxi, 30 min. from Syntagma)
Decor: Rustic kitsch, wood paneling, farmers' chatchkas and more
Wine List: Greek and decent house wine
Prices: 20-22 euro per person
Address: 19-21 Kyprion Agoniston str., Paradissos Amaroussiou, Tel: 210 803 5800
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My friends Virginia and Aspa knew the place. I had never heard of it. As we sat down, an old friend from Ikaria who works in the neighborhood and likes his midday meze and ouzo appeared out of nowhere. That was a good sign; he knows all the best meze places in downtown Athens. Following his lead, I decided to while away the afternoon, a beautiful, warm, sunny Halcyon day in January, doing what I hadn't done in a long time: playing hooky with some girlfriends.

First, of course, the wine came, a light white that made the day seem even more like summer than it was. We sat outside. Filema is popular. It occupies two small but separate places on Romvis Street with tables outdoors and inside. The food was traditional and very good. I loved the Armenian kebab, delicious large biftekia grilled wonderfully and very juicy. The kima actually had flavor. It comes with a large dollop of paprika-sprinkled yogurt, raw onions and warm pita. The Keftedes Kozanis weren’t as impressive—the kefte (more like a bifteki) was very good but the thick, white sauce that is spooned over it didn’t add anything except weight to the dish. Everything else was really clean-flavored: the black-eyed pea salad with its raw onion and simple olive oil dressing was lovely and, surprisingly, served warm. The boiled vegetable salad was also brimming with perfectly poached winter vegetables, not to soft, not too toothsome. The grilled hot peppers came with a light sprinkling of vinegar. There were plenty on the plate to satisfy this heat-loving palate. Actually the peppers themselves could have been even spicier. We tried the pastourmadopita, too, which was a big envelope-shaped pan-fried pie filled with pastourma, tomatoes and cheese. It was good but a little on the salty side. Fried atherina seemed to have jumped straight out of the sea, it was so fresh. Filema filled up as the afternoon moved on, the wine flowed, the conversation turned from girlie things to old Athens gems, like Mentis across the road, a virtual museum of tassles and threads and the hat place up the road, also a throwback to the capital’s more glorious past. Our waiter brought out a tray of yogurt-sweet, little squares of gelatinized cream with a biscuit base and a few syruped nuts on top. It was light and inobtrusive—a quiet end to a slightly guilt-ridden afternoon “kopana” (Greek for hookey).

Cuisine: Mezedes
Athens Area: Downtown in old Athens
Decor: Rustic chic and quaint
Service: Good
Wine list: Greek wines, ouzo, tsipouro, beer
Price: 12 -20 euro a person
Address: 16 Romvis str., Syntagma, Tel.: 210-3250222
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Metohi. Anyone who has followed this blog or my regular column in Greek (Ta Nea) over a period of time has probably realized that I like simple food. Sometimes, the simpler the better, especially if it’s cooked with care by someone who is obviously excited about what they do.

Such a cook is Aristea Karamali, the co-proprietess of Metohi, a small taverna in Kato Halandri where some very good food, much of it culled from the repertoire of dishes from her native Limnos, can be found. Metohi stands apart from many of the restaurants and tavernas in the same category for two reasons: one, for sure, is the quality of the food, which is very much home-cooked.

The other is the space itself, which is arguably one of the most “personal” of rooms anywhere in the city. The taverna is located on the street level of a small apartment house, butMetihi once you walk through the gate you can almost be certain you’ve never seen anything quite like it. Floor to ceiling are covered with the hand-painted murals of Aristea’s partner, an artist, Nikos Papadakis. There is something almost church-like about the space, with its icon-like paintings, despite the live music a few times a week and despite the convivial atmosphere brought about by the couple’s hospitality. Even the garden, walled in, is filled with furniture that looks almost sculptural.

But it’s the food, even more than the uniqueness of the space, which will bring you back here time and again. The chef’s Limnos roots show through in a slew of raw ingredients, including a supply of the island’s sea-washed cheese, melipasto, which she often has on hand. Then there is the parade of delicious dishes, from some of the best homemade pitas anywhere in this city (especially the coiled Limnos greens and cheese pies), as well as excellent one-pot (mageirefta) pork and vegetable dishes, vegetable and/or bean stews, and some delicious chicken dishes. The eggplant rolled with meat in a lovely, simple tomato sauce is also excellent. But my overall favorite are the hand-rolled dolmades with a hint of tomatoes. I wish there more places like this in Athens, where home cooking shines, where pretense is nonexistent and where the owners are actually in the kitchen and on the floor running the place.

Cuisine: Delicious homey Greek fare with an emphasis on the foods of Limnos
Athens Area: Halandri, accessible by metro & bus; 15 min. by taxi from syntagma
Decor: wall murals reminiscent with a Byzantine flair, painted by the owner, make this place seem like a total escape
Service: Warm and friendly
Prices: 25-30 euro a person
Address: 13 Byronos str., Kato Halandri / Tel. 210 6752775

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MOMA has Danny Meyer, the quintessential New York restaurateur, who runs the museum’s excellent restaurant; the Museum of Natural History in Kifissia has Thanassis Platis, the latest in a line of caterers who have taken over this lovely, modern dining room. While success proved evasive to previous managers of this unique space, Platis is determined—and poised—to make it work.

Really, how can his recipe for success not work: Take a space (remember that old restaurant rule “location, location, location”) that’s centrally located in the most affluent neighborhood in the country and that offers a stately, subdued, contemporary design within one of the most beautiful museums (culture, food, natural history—it all sort of ties together), import a young, enthusiastic, excellent French chef, Olivier Campanha, who just happens to be married to a Greek chef (she also works at Ammonites) and who just happens to have worked as a sous chef at Sketches, an acclaimed London restaurant, as well as with French master Pierre Gagnaire. Organize a menu of 6 refined but exciting French dishes that changes on a weekly basis, charge 45 euro for it and keep the wine list priced within most people’s limits (from 18 euro to 138 euro, with plenty to chose from on the lower end). To this enthusiastic diner, Ammonites seemed like the culinary equivalent of a head-to-toe Prada outfit at bargain prices!

Needless to say, we ate very well: a delicious starter of foie gras with pear crisps came out first. The foie gras was perhaps a tad more cooked than I like it but the combination struck a post-holiday balance, brought together by spiced wine sauce like an echo of Christmas. The lobster bisque, with a faint smokiness and a swirl of crème fraiche, was outstanding. The cod, coated with black and regular sesame seeds, comes in bite-sized pieces afloat in an ethereal miso broth. It was a little salty but nevertheless evinced what a chef who knows his techniques can do with any ingredients, no matter what ethnic cuisine they belong to. The pigeon breast was a hearty break from typical meat offerings, even typical game offerings, which tend toward wild boar in this country, but it was a little disjointed from the bed of wilted cabbage on which strips of breast, cooked medium by request, rested. Raspberries and the tiniest broccoli florets also garnish the dish. The cheese plate which followed was divine and very generous: warm camembert, aged parmesan, gorgonzola cream, and various dried fruits and nuts.

Our night at the museum ended with a guanaja chocolate bombe, very, very rich, crystallized kumquats, which were delicious, and way too much white porto for this aging head.

Now, that was then. Next week, and the week after, and the week after that, the dishes will change. It takes a disciplined, talented chef to switch gears like that week in and week out and to maintain consistent quality. I can’t wait to go back again and try more. Ammonites is also open for lunch.

Cuisine: Haute Franco-Grecque
Athens Area: 30 min. north of the city in Kifissia, accessible by train, bus, taxi
Decor: Gorgeous, stately setting inside one of the city's best museums
Service: Very good
Wine list: Excellent and international
Prices: Prix Fixe at 45 euro w/o wine (6 plates courses, change weekly)
Address: Goulandris Museum of Natural History, 100 Othonos str., Kifissia, Tel.: 2108015112
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Bistro Baxevannis

I guess it’s a symptom of the times when one of Greece’s most internationally known chefs downgrades from haute cuisine to paysanne cuisine, especially in the form of the most popular food of all, grilled, skewered meats, pita bread and mezedes. When he does it with flair, thank God, there’s a sense of hope amidst all the insanity this country has seen in the last few weeks. The chef is Yiannis Baxevannis and the place is his flagship restaurant right in the heart of Syntagma, Bistrot Baxevannis. What started out as a very high-end concept in a landmark building with a prix fixe menu that hovered close to 90 euro before even the first sip of wine is now totally reinvented. The Ergastiri (a la Robuchon) became a bistro overnight. The food, a casual blend of skewered meats, spicy dips, the chef’s great way with beans and more, is excellent, especially when one takes into account the 21 euro price tag (before wine). But there are also daily specials, mainly at lunch, in which the chef expands on the themes that have always interested him, especially vegetable and bean cookery and dishes culled from the vast repertoire of Greece’s country kitchen. His main sous chef, Thanassis Roussos, executes with artistry. The Bistro menu is not exactly new. Baxevannis and his staff execute the same menu at Prassinos Lofos in Alimo, but here, under the chef’s almost daily presence in the kitchen, the food is noticeably better. The skewers are all really good. Tender cuts of chicken and pork, for example, come served over a plate-sized piece of Baxevannis own pita bread (made tender with the addition of banana pulp, from what he told us). The waiter chops and mixes a spicy side dish right at the table. Of all the mezedes brought out and lined up like little soldiers, the best is the hummus, a delicious, velvety puree of chick peas and spices that is far superior to what is served in most of the Middle Easter restaurants in town. After a parade of various meats and mezedes, the finale ends on a carnivorous overindulgence: skewered pork and prunes. By the time this arrived I honestly could only manage a small bite. The first skewers are tastier. The galaktoboureko with its butter French twist is worth saving space for. I hope Bistro does well. We like the civilized atmosphere and relative quiet. The design could stand a little excitement, but maybe there’s enough just down the street at Syntagma Square for the moment.

Cuisine: Kebabs and other carnivorous classics by well-known chef Yannis Baxevannis
Athens Area: Downtown, Syntagma
Decor: A little dull, white walls, maroon overtones
Service: Good
Wine list: Good, Greek
Prices: Prix Fixe at 23 euro w/o wine
Address: 48 Nikis str., Plaka, Athens, Tel.: 210-32 22 839.

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Wow. I hadn’t been to this totally historic restaurant in the stoa off Kolokotroni Street since the newspaper I work for moved from the center several years ago. It was like stepping into a time warp: hugely busy at midday when we went, with a constant flow of diners coming and going, waiters who were rushing and busy but also friendly and accommodating, and a comforting array of familiar faces, families, business people, and neighborhood locals in the crowd of hungry lunchers, all of whom obviously come here for the straightforward, classic Greek fare. You enter the wrought iron black gates that lead into the arcade where Kentrikon has been housed for decade and it reminds you of another Athens. The restaurant, although renovated, still has an old-world feel to it thanks to the wood paneling that comes half way up the walls and the old oversized black and white prints of Athens’ main attractions (Parthenon, etc.). The waiters know half the customers by name, including my dining companion. It’s a place not to talk too loud if you’re doing business, lest someone overhear you! It’s also a restaurant where dads feed their two year olds fried potatoes without seeming out of place amidst the suits and cell phones. The menu is huge and totally classic and that’s what is so great and comforting about it. All the food our grandmothers used to make on Sundays is on the menu: giouvetsi, soupies me spanaki, revithia me melitzanes, a whole range of ladera, of meat stew, of classic Greek pasta dishes and more. We stayed simple with a Lenten dish of seafood giouvetsi, which was very good (it needed a touch more sauce). My tsipoura riganati was excellent, tender, juicy and filled with the aromas of classic Greek cooking—that timeless triad of roasted tomatoes, lemon and oregano, all swimming in just enough oil to leave a delicious pool for dipping the bread at the end. The boiled vegetable salad is a generous portion of zucchini, broccoli, beets, cauliflower and carrots, the olive oil on the table is emerald green and the simplicity reassuring in these complicated times. We opted out of the other classic, a tuna salad, which I was tempted to order. The waiters, despite the lunchtime rush, were attentive. The end came with another classic, at the insistence of my dining companion: the crème caramele, made on the premises and really very good. Light, not too sweet, and with the perfect texture caramel on top and around the little mound of soft, cold, set cream. The throwback to another era is something I like. If I worked downtown, I’d definitely come here a few times a week. It’s everything most of us don’t bother to cook anymore ourselves, and everything we miss about this ever more violent, confused city: good old-fashioned values.

Cuisine: Classic Greek Home Cooking
Athens Area: Downtown Athens, near Syntagma
Decor: Oversized prints of the Acropolis and other classic touches in this simple, bustling lunch time favorite
Service: Good, fast, efficient
Wine list: Everything you need
Price: 15-20 euro a person
Address: 3 Kolokotroni str., Athens, Tel.: 210 3232482

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Gazi, Keramikos, Metaxourgeio. These are the areas of so many Athenians’ nights out, mine included. On the last several forays down there, roaming the area looking for parking, I couldn’t help but notice one of the last of the Moheekan: an 80-year old taverna right on the corner of Leonidiou Street that looked great from the outside. Dating the 1933, Metaxourgeio as this simple place is called, reminds anyone of another era, one we all kind of yearn for these days, an era when tavernas were the meeting point of whole groups of the population, where music happened and the food was good but secondary to the talk.

This place circa 2009 has gone through a major renovation, of course. And I am sorry to say that the outside touches a lot more nostalgic notes than the inside. For one, two floors have been added. But beyond that, the patina is all new, despite the exposed stone clichés, the wood, the general air of imposed rusticity. Only the great big, old wooden staircase, a little uneven at each step, harkens to another time.

It was very quiet the Tuesday night we visited Metaxourgeio, as Tuesday nights are apt to be throughout most of the Athens dining scene. The menu here is classic taverna fare, executed competently from what we could see by the spate of plates we ordered, but in need of something extra, some individual brushstroke to give the food a little character. The tigania, for example, pan-fried pork, unctuous tomato sauce and delicious fried potatoes (which had soaked up a fair amount of sauce, making them even better) was over salted and unnuanced. The melitzanosalata, my own bellweather, the dish by which I judge many a restaurants, was the standard mayonnaised up commercial rendition, chunky but almost milky, with none of that smoky aroma that draws so many of us to countless eggplant dishes. We ordered the florina peppers clay baked with feta, a very mediocre rendition of a simple, but, when well prepared, delicious, dish. Here, the peppers came straight out of a jar, so there was no sweetness to counter the saltiness of the cheese, only brininess. Ditto on the eggplant baked with cheese, which was brought out by mistake but which we kept. I ordered the stewed eggplant as a main course; when these two dishes were side by side, the only thing that distinguished them was the addition of feta in the one. The salad, a medley of winter greens and radicchio came with whole, huge pieces of arugula and other greens that made it awkward to eat.

Grilled salmon came laden with vegetables every which way: boiled zucchini, cauliflower, potatoes, and greens. The plate was overloaded and the main part of it bland and dried out. Saving grace here: the portion is large. Portions are generally generous, as evinced in the last dish we sampled, the pork chops, which were simple but well cooked.

Metaxourgeio could be better, lots better, if only the kitchen makes an effort to do something a little interesting. This is a menu that has played out in Greek restaurants all over the world. A lot of us love simple Greek fare, but we also like the sense of effort that goes into designing a menu aimed at showcasing something original, even if it’s simple. That’s what is lacking here.

Cuisine: Classic Taverna Fare
Area: Downtown Athens
Decor: Rustic Retro
Service: OK
Wine List: Small and decent; house wine is a light rose
Prices: Around 20-30 euro a person
Address: 25 Myllerou & 1 Leonidiou str., Avdi Square, Metaxourgeio, Tel.: 210 7050103, 6944678930

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