The Best of 2015

December 28, 2015

It’s been an exciting year for Leicestershire and Rutland restaurants, and I’ve been thinking back over some of the great food I’ve encountered this year. Here’s a sample of ten of my best culinary experiences of 2015 ,as done for the Leicester Mercury|:

1)St Martin’s Tea and Coffee, Leicester

This could have had three entries in the top ten. First off, the day-time cafe regularly features an epic sandwich – the Cuban has layers of marinated pork that chef Chris Elliman has slow-cooked overnight, along with more meat, cheese and pickles that combine in a remarkable way. Working alongside Elliman is Javan-born chef Bobby Ananta providing a South-East Asian slant on the menu, and his beef rendang was a complete revelation. Warmly-spiced slow-cooked meat that fell apart, plenty of toasted coconut and fresh salad spiked with lime juice. Finally, from Thursday to Saturday evening the venue hosts Crafty’s, serving up the best burgers in the county.

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2) Kayal, Leicester

It seems every week some celebrity chef turns up to learn from the Kayal crew, most recently it was Ainsley Harriot and, erm, Len Goodman filming there. It’s understandable as there is a long list of fine dishes on offer here along with some of the best service you’ll encounter. It’s hard to pick a favourite but I’m always knocked out by the Kottayam Egg Fry starter – an Easter special among Kerala’s Syriac Christian community and somewhat prosaically described here as a “batter-fried boiled egg with chutney”. It’s a beautifully tangy, vibrant curry that everyone should try.

3) The Berkeley Arms, Wymondham

I’d been wanting to get to this highly-rated country pub between Melton and Oakham for years and finally made it in the Spring. I wasn’t disappointed and stand-out dish was a braised leg of hare with poached pear and candied walnuts, a tremendous combination of flavours and texture.

4) The White Peacock, Leicester

Chef Phillip Sharpe has settled into his New Walk restaurant very comfortably and is producing elegant, fine food in sophisticated surroundings. A duck terrine from the tasting menu last Spring still lingers in the memory as combining great flavours with refined presentation. Wrapped in cabbage and made into a perfect cylinder, it was matched with charred brioche toast, a fruity mango salsa and little discs of crunchy radish.

5) 34 Windsor St, Burbage

A lively, swanky, welcoming fine dining restaurant that appears to be thriving with new head chef Arran Shaw. A long spell in Italy inspired Arran with the principles of the Slow Food movement and a respect for quality ingredients. That all came together in a marvellous starter of vibrant home-cured salmon with beer mustard and red and gold beetroot, plus a slice of remarkably complex Russian black bread – the result of several years recipe development.

7) John’s House, Mountsorrel

After a review last summer I speculated that the big national food guides might soon catch on to the remarkable food on offer here. A few months later it was granted Leicestershire’s first Michelin Star. I loved the domestic feel of John’s House and while all the dishes impressed with their focus on fabulous ingredients, it was the canapes served as we sat on the sofa pondering the menu that landed a memorable knock-out blow – a dreamy duck liver parfait served in a little cornet with a dash of sweet cumberland sauce and topped with a savoury crunch of chicken skin.

Duck liver parfait

8) Bewicke Arms, Hallaton

New owners and new chefs have at last turned this well-known country pub into a real destination for diners. Chefs Tom Cockerill and Glenn Cowl do things the right way – as evidenced by a superb starter of grilled Dexter ox heart, lightly grilled and served with locally-made salami. A dish like that is a real statement of intent from the kitchen.

9) Maiyango, Leicester

Owner Atin Anadkat has skilfully steered this business over the last decade, expanding to include a stylish boutique hotel. This year it gained a new head chef in the form of Sav Tassari. He can do big and gutsy – I remember an epic fillet steak – but he also builds on the restaurant’s reputation for delicacy and for catering for vegans and vegetarians. Fitting then, that my top memory is of simple but stunning starter of fragrant winter vegetables – fine specimens including squash, artichoke and beetroots in a gentle sweet and sour dressing which let the essential earthiness through.

10) The Salmon, Leicester

If I was asked to show a foreign visitor an example of British food at its very best I could happily take them to any of the fine establishments written about here. However I might just settle for The Salmon. On a Friday evening, with the serious business of the week largely done, I can think of few finer moments than when halfway down the second pint of some or other real ale in this award winning pub, one of your friends disappears to the bar shortly to be followed back by a barmaid with a large Stilton-topped pork pie, cut neatly into manageable slices, and a jar of mustard. The pub was set to change ownership in December – I hope the pies stay in place.

News of an additional facility at a well-established restaurant and of a couple of interesting new openings that highlighting the diversity of Leicester’s dining scene.

To mark its 10th anniversary, Maiyango has converted its former deli at 52A Highcross St – which suffered during the major disruption that accompanied the creation of Jubilee Square – into The Tasting Room.  This warmly decorated space that can be booked for groups of up to 20 for private gatetherings,  where they can play own music along with their own bar tender, with free hire  when they pick a drinks package along with optional canapes, antipasti board  and nibbles.

Alternatively groups can book their own cocktails classes where a mixologist can take the group through the classics or help them create their own.

IMG_1789 (2)At the launch event I sampled a sublime gin jelly cocktail with tonic granita and coriander and you can see me on the right shaking a white chocolate and mint martini. Not my usual tipples but good fun.

I also tried this week a new London Rd restaurant Karamay, apparently one of the very first Westen Chinese restaurants in the country, featuring the cuisine of the Muslim Uighur people of Xinjiang. Their culture is quite distinct from the rest of China and the food has clear links to central Asian and Turkish food. I won’t say much here yet  as I’ll be writing a newspaper review soon but this was good, well-cooked comfort food in informal surroundings and I’ll definitely be going back.

Further up on London Road, another South Indian restaurant opened this week called Chettinad, a project linked to the vegetarian Shivalli on Welford Road and to a restaurant of the same name ion central London. Both of these draw inspiration – and I choose those words very carefully  – from Halli, the vegetarian restaurant opened by Jaimon Thomas which subsequently became the hugely successful Kayal.

The menu looks to draw broadly from the cuisines of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala  with lamb fish, chicken dishes and a wide range of dosas.  Looks very promising and a big improvement on the buffet place it replaces.

I also note somewhat sadly the venerable Taj Mahal, one of the City’s very first tandoori restaurants around the corner on Highfield St,  has finally closed to be replaced shortly by a “halal Gourment Burger restaurant” Lemon Pepper

With lively independent Turkish, Moroccan, Italian, Indian, South Indian, Szechuan and Uighur restaurants all with a few yards of each other, , London Road is becoming more and more of a food hotspot by the week.

Dining on a diet

June 7, 2015

Over the last few weeks I’ve reviewed three burger restaurants plus an American barbecue venue – all very nice but maybe not great for the waistline.

So it was a pleasure to go to a “Dining on a Diet” last week at courtesy of personal trainer Joe Hanney of U Fit studios. I’d written a feature for the Mercury on Joe’s efforts to encourage his clients to realise they can dine out if they want to, even those who are on a strict weightloss regime. Eating out is of course one of life’s great pleasures and any diet is going to be more sustainable if it enables us to keep doing the things we enjoy.

Eating healthy is partly about making good choices  but it’s also about restaurants making those choices possible and Joe Hanney is working with a group of restaurants to try and get healthy dishes established on their menu. That feature was based on a lunch menu at Enderby’s Cini, and this was a follow up event  at a packed Maiyango in Leicester.

Chef Sav Tassari developed a light six course tasting which was a mere 700 calories. Starting with a simple but fiery plum and fresh ginger broth, we moved on to another oriental-styled dish featuring a sizeable piece of pollock seasoned with sesame seeds sitting on a noodle roll and a miso and wakame broth – these two dishes set the tone for a series of dishes which while they had been largely stripped of much in the way of fat or carbs, were still had plenty to excite the palate.

This was seen most clearly in the star dish of the evening – carpaccio of swordfish with a tremendous salad of apple, beetroot, hazelnuts and capers, dressed with foamy chilli emulsion. This was creative, beautiful and full of flavour.

Swordfish carpaccio

Swordfish carpaccio

Next up was a chicken breast poached, I assume sous vide, and flavoured with lime and black pepper. The delight for me of a chicken breast is a nicely crispy skin which has provided a basting a fat, but that wasn’t the style of the evening. Nevertheless the cooking technique had managed to really imprint the citrus and pepper flavours and with a little sweet potato mash and a black olive dressing there was still plenty to enjoy here. We finished up with a sharp, refreshing granita of grapefruit and coriander and a sugar free (though you wouldn’t have known it) mango mousse with kiwi and a banana dumpling.

I’m not about to drastically change my diet, but all of us could do a reminder that you don’t always need  butter, cream and all the rest to make an enjoyable meal.

* While we are here, one more interesting bit of news for Leicester city centre. The old Allied Irish bank in St Martin’s could  it seems turned into a restaurant and deli by Nottingham’s Daliliah.  Many chissits will have made it over to Dalilah’s fabulous deli and if they can mount something of a similar quality and with a similar vibe that would be a huge boost for the city centre.

I was invited last week to provide a bit of feedback on the new menu at Maiyango. I enjoyed the work of chef Nick Wilson but it seems personal matters have drawn him away to Cambridge and now in charge behind the stove is Salvatore (Sav) Tassari.  Recruited with Nick Wilson’s involvement  as a possible successor, Sav has recently come to Leicester after four years cooking out in Tenerife but also has experience at a fine dining hotel in Chester and out in Italy.

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Andy Hall from St Martin’s Tea and Coffee with Aatin Anadkat of Maiyango

Before tasting though I was lucky enough to get a further insight into restaurant operations by sitting in on a session with Andy Hall from St Martin’s Coffee who has been charged with coming up with a new blend for Maiyango to grind. It’s great to see quality independent businesses co-operating like this. Andy had high hopes for a El Salvador Salmon Bourbon bean but while it was a complex bean the roast – done back in Central America – had not done it any favours, leaving it lacking body.  More promising was a blend from Brazil and Ethiopia.

On to lunch and I was able to sample some of Sav’s dishes – including a seemingly simple  but stunning starter of fragrant winter vegetables, including butternut squash, artichoke, beetroots. It’s billed as sweet and sour, but the slight spicing didn’t detract from the earthy essential flavour od the veg. Very impressive mains of a wonderful tender, rare beef fillet with asparagus, mushroom puree and truffle sauce showed really good balance of flavours, not easy with truffle. This impression was backed up by a taste of the steamed wild sea bass, spiced coconut laksa, bok choi, chilli and a refreshing mint relish which gave the whole lift.  A desert of a pineapple parfait with yoghurt foam and a foaming cucumber soup was a clever combination – the cucumber was a bit insubstantial on its own but with the pineapple it all made perfect sense.

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Winter vegetables

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Wild seabass

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Pineapple parfait

 

 

All in all it seems Sav has understood his brief here and is producing interesting food that continues the house style fine dining with international influences but strong local roots too. There’s plenty of invention and plenty for vegetarians and vegans too.

Coincidentally I reviewed one of Sav’s predecessor’s in my Mercury Column this week. Phil Sharpe opened the White Peacock in late 2013 and my impression is the place is really hitting its stride. We had a lovely tasting menu full of good flavours and confident cooking in a smart, upmarket but relaxed environment. It’s a lovely building too and provides an excellent dining experience in the heart of the city – you can see the review here 

One more bit of news, former general manager Mark Barbour has returned to the Red Lion, Stathern, after a gap of nine years. The pub holds a Michelin Bib Gourmand and is the Good Pub Guide’s Leicestershire Dining Pub of the Year for 2015, but owners  Sean Hope and Ben Jones recently announced that they are withdrawing from active management  to focus on their other venue, the wonderful Olive Branch in Clipsham.  Mark ran the pub fron 2002  to 2006 and since then has been training manager for the Bistro Pierre chain, opening its flagship Ilkley hotel,  and  general manager at the award-winning Fleece Inn at Addingham, West Yorkshire.

 

Chateau Musar tasting dinner

September 23, 2014

It’s been quite a week, culminating in the utter euphoria of the King Power stadium on Sunday. But man can not live by 5-3 wins alone, great food and wine is also pretty vital, and fortunately I had some of that too.

The Chateau Musar tasting dinner at Maiyango kicked off with canapés including crunchy kohl-rabi bhajis and smoked salmon mousseline, with a glass of Musar’s dry and elegant Rosé Jeune made from 100 per cent cinsault. Then Ralph Hochar, grandson of Musar’s founder Gaston, gave us a comprehensive introduction to the history of wine-making in the Lebanon and the foundation of this remarkable vineyard in the Bekaa valley.

Ralph Hochar

Ralph Hochar

It’s an inspiring and fascinating tale, even if he was a bit, erm, thorough for some of those keenly waiting to taste the fruits of his labour and to see how well they matched chef Nick Wilson’s menu. We were to try four vintages of Musar’s trademark red, starting with the 2007 matched to a beautifully spiced rabbit pastilla with a carrot and burnt orange purée. This is the most recently released vintage (the 2006 is not yet ready to be released, we learnt, as harvesting and winemaking were done in less than ideal circumstances due to a little local difficulty with the Israeli army). It was great – rich and spicy though not excessively so, and was in total harmony with the dish. The 2003 was surprisingly different, lighter and more delicate and another great match for our wild sea bass with char-grilled asparagus and a spiced bouillabaisse.

IMG_1246With a main of Lebanese spiced rump of local organic lamb with a smoky aubergine purée,  we had two vintages to compare – the 1999 with its tobacco and leather notes and the awesome 1995. Apparently 10 years ago the tannins in this were harsh, but now it’s just a superb complex wine, still with plenty of fruit but hinting at darker flavours too.

There was a superb dessert of a gooey chocolate marquise with tobacco ice-cream (needs an open mind but seriously enjoyable) and a mouth-tingling salted cocoa nib tuile. The balance of salt, sweet and bitter with a dangerous flavour such as tobacco confirms a serious intelligence at work in the kitchen here.IMG_1248

I didn’t much care for the two whites we tried with cheeses but they seemed to have their fans in the room. Ralph Hochar accepted they were “more difficult for people to understand”. He was utterly charming, but I think that was me told. We finished up with a glass of Musar’s arak,  anise-flavoured spirit distilled from local obaideh grapes and clocking in at a feisty 53%,  but surprisingly clean and smooth. A fine digestif.

What I took away was a sense of just how varied the vintages of a great wine can be and a huge respect for the people who have built this business in such extraordinary circumstances.  This was a great opportunity for fine food and wine matching.

* Oh and if you think this is all a bit fancy and pretentious, here’s a more humble Middle Eastern recommendation – Falafel Land on Gallowtree Gate. From this tiny little hutch on the edge of what looks a hideous buffet barn, I had today freshly-made crunchy, nutty Syrian falafel in flatbread, with salad and pickles – £2.50. Delicious.

Look, it's my blog and I decide what pictures go in Ok?

Look, it’s my blog and I decide what pictures go in, ok?

Chateau Musar Dinner

September 2, 2014

untitledOne for wine lovers here – Maiyango has pulled off a bit of a coup by getting Ralph Hochar, a scion of the family behind legendary Lebanon label Chateau Musar, to host a tasting and dinner at the restaurant on 17th September. There will be a six course tasting menu, paired with wines from Musar, at £65 a head. Booking details here

I caught up with Maiyango founder Aatin Anadkat on Friday  and had an interesting chat about new developments for the business.

With the Jubilee Square development finally nearing completion and the Richard III visitor centre opening around the corner last week, Aatin recognised there was an opportunity here for the restaurant and boutique hotel business to have a bit of a rethink. Over the last nine years the fine dining restaurant has developed into one of the city’s best, but there’s a limited lunchtime market for a smart restaurant. With a bustling new public square right outside the front door the time was right to develop a more informal all-day breakfast and lunch menu that could appeal to tourists, shoppers, serious lunchers and hotel residents alike.

Atin Anadkat at Maiyango

Aatin Anadkat at Maiyango

So the first step was to abandon the traditional buffet breakfast served upstairs in the hotel and create a funky brunch approach that is open to all and served in the restaurant.  Aatin was inspired by informal, quirky diners sprouting up in areas of London such as Kings Cross and Smithfield – “all that over complicated, pretentious stuff – that’s gone!”.

One look at the breakfast/brunch menu – which runs until 2pm – and you can see that this stands a good chance of sweeping up a big chunk of the city centre’s  breakfast market. Standing out immediately for me was huevos rancheros – jalapeno and tomato compote, fried eggs, tortilla, sour cream refried bread and chorizo. I secretly snuck back on Sunday morning to give this a try but they’d sold out  – disappointing, but at least suggests a freshness in preparation (I wonder how often they run of things at Coast to Coast). Instead I had Maiyango Benedict, a beautiful prepared version featuring lip-tingling jalapeno cornbread, poached free-range eggs, two hefty tranches of ham with  creamy hollandaise given a little sharpness from, I think, gherkin. Very good indeed. There’s also, of course, the full English, a vegetarian version with grilled asparagus, slow roasted tomato, flat mushroom, sautéed sweet potato and eggs, plus healthy options such as organic granola or a fruit board with water melon, pineapple, seasonal berries, greek yoghurt, blossom honey and fresh mint leaves. There’s also choices of smoothies and pastries from the in-house bakery.

The lunch menu, available until 5pm, reflects the international cast of the restaurant’s evening menus, with the likes of an Asian tasting plate with sweet potato and coriander bhaji, tandoori paneer skewer, moong lentil dahl, squash and spinach samosa, and kohlrabi and shallot pakora. Then there’s small plates such as sticky pulled pork with kimchi flat bread and celeriac slaw. The more substantial lunches include Moroccan lamb burger, spiced root vegetable fries and slaw, or lemon grass and chilli infused salmon with coconut and basil broth.

Prices? More than nearby Wetherspoons for sure, but that’s hardly the point. This is quality stuff and you could have a light lunch and drink for around a tenner or a bit of a blowout for £20.

With other tweaks, such as the reintroduction of draught beer (including Freedom lager), I think there’s a compelling case for now considering Maiyango as a classy daytime cafe as well as a stylish destination dining venue.

I ran into Aatin Anadkat of Maiyango at last week’s Winter Food Festival at Leicester Market. He was buzzing over the prospects for his business – “these last few weeks it’s like I’ve had a shot of adrenaline” he told me.

Sweet potato and chipotle veloute, mango salsa

Sweet potato and chipotle veloute, mango salsa

Aatin launched the restaurant when not long out of University. It was stylish, cosmopolitan and offered something new for Leicester. Over the last decade Aatin and his colleagues showed considerable savvy and skill to not just secure the restaurant and bar, but to develop the City’s smartest boutique hotel, a banqueting operation running out of the St Martin’s House by the Cathedral and a Kitchen Deli on Highcross St.

So when his long-term head chef and friend Phil Sharpe left last month to set up on his own at The White Peacock, it was naturally one of the occasions when you drag out that old (apparently erroneous) notion that the Chinese word for crisis equates to “danger and opportunity”.  So, hence the adrenaline.

The opportunity to refresh the operation has seen the appointment of Nick Wilson as head chef. He is a hugely experienced chef but appears to be a great fit for Maiyango.  At a tasting session last week he provided a mightily impressive debut for a group of experienced and hard-to-please diners.

Things started off with Maiyango’s typically inventive cocktails (chilli and lemongrass mojito, star anise-flavoured oriental julep) and canapés including an exceptionally gorgeous cod and chorizo samosa.  The starter of a smooth sweet potato and chipotle veloute gave a real tingle to the tongue but was brilliantly paired with a cooling mango salsa and crunchy kohlrabi bhaji.

“We’re not doing fusion food.’ said our maître d’.  “We say this is modern European food with influences from the East”.  Fusion cooking doesn’t have a great name, but with food this good I don’t really mind what you call it.

roast cod, celeriac puree, curried mussels

Roast cod, celeriac puree, curried mussels

Next up came distinctly Eastern tandoori paneer and vegetable skewers with carrot pickle, sag aloo salad and a belting cherry tomato jam. Well cooked, with nicely balanced flavours, this was another winner.  Then came what I think most people thought was the star dish of the night – perfectly roasted cod with a seared edge, rich and smooth celeriac puree, crunchy aubergine crisps, wilted spinach and fantastic mussels with a lightly curried creamy broth. Great cooking and a very well-conceived dish.  To serve at least 30 people more or less at once and get things so right suggests Chef Wilson has very quickly got things right in the kitchen.

Glazed duck, leg hash

Glazed duck, leg hash

The main course of duck was a showstopper but for me had one or two elements too much.  The duck breast was great, the hash of duck leg in a sweetish/sourish sauce was really great. Cayenne potatoes could have been a bit spicier and  a bit crunchier, and while the bok choi and date puree both worked, another puree (squash?), orange and vanilla syrup and a smear of tapenade seemed to take the focus away from the main event of the dish. Some of the combinations worked in the mouth, others didn’t.

Desert featured a cardamom and white chocolate brulee.  Cardamom can be a bit of a beast used in delicate puds, but I thought the balance here was spot on and the result was totally delicious.

Overall then – very good cooking, well-composed dishes, served up by well-trained and charming staff.  I spoke to several people afterwards who said they’d always enjoyed Maiyango but had maybe got a little bored of the menu – and they were now eager to come back and try again.

No doubt that will music to Aatin’s ears. For Leicester diners, it seems the shot in the arm provided by a bit of friendly rivalry could have rich dividends.

Update:30/11/13 – …and congratulations to Maiyango for winning both Hotel of the Year and Taste of England Award in Leicestershire’s 2013 Excellence in Tourism Awards

Menu drooling

November 13, 2013

Menus – I love ’em.

As anyone who has ever walked past a new restaurant with me will testify, I’m almost certain to disappear for two minutes for a peer at the menu. A poorly written one is a disappointment and a warning. A straightforward one that hits the right notes gives a little thrill. Hmmm. Have I overshared there?

Two rather exciting menus came into my inbox today. Les Rosbifs Bar and Grill, which recently relocated from Northfield Farm in Rutland to Six Hills off the A46 between Leicester and Nottingham, are having a game night on 23 November which sounds packed with autumnal goodness.  There are canapés  including seared carpaccio of Leicestershire venison, juniper, smoked sea salt and pepper, roasted beetroot and sloe gin compote, plus smoked pigeon
and griottine cherry tapenade en croute. Then there’s a first course  of slow braised rabbit tartlet  with garlic gazed girolles, toasted pancetta and black truffle oil. There’s an epic sounding main course of shin of venison and ox-tail Bourguignon with vintage Lincolnshire Poacher and parsnip dauphinoise.  Pudding sounds equally warming  – apple and bramble crumble with roasted macadamia and oat crunch, Whissendine honey and damson whisky ice-cream. With palate cleanser and coffee and truffles for £29.95, it sounds a right deal.

chef watsonAnd secondly, we now have the first menus from Nick Wilson,  new head chef at Maiyango (right). It looks like evolution rather than revolution from the man who has helmed Michelin star and four rosette kitchens. New to the city, Nick describes Leicester as “a melting pot of people, culture and flavours” and reckons “it will be fantastic to explore different tastes and cooking techniques.”

I hope to be sampling some of the new the menu next week, but among the immediately appealing elements are starters such as king scallops, squash puree, squid and chorizo cannelloni, or presse of local game, bitter chocolate, pancetta, prunes and treacle bread. Front runners from the mains for me are seabass with thai spiced rissotto, crab croquette, coconut and shellfish bisque, and gressingham duck breast, leg hash, cayenne potatoes, bok choi, date puree, orange and vanilla syrup.  And well done to Nick for offering a complete tasting menu for coeliacs and even a couple of vegan options.

Right that’s enough menu drooling – I’m off to cook something…

New chef for Maiyango

October 30, 2013

News reaches me from Maiyango that they have now recruited a new executive chef to head up their restaurant, hotel and banqueting operation. As reported here recently,  Phil Sharpe has moved on – on good terms I’m assured –  to run his own venture the White Peacock on New Walk, which opens this weekend. The new chef at Maiyango is Nick Wilson, who trained under Jean Christophe Novelli, eventually heading up Novelli’s Michelin-starred Les Saveurs in Mayfair. He also counts celebrated venues including Gleneagles Hotel and Sharrow Bay on his CV, with more recent jobs at the all-organic Walnut Club in Hathersage, and the Swan at Lavenham in Suffolk.

Maiyango currently has an AA rosette,  Good Food Guide listing and a big commitment to showcasing Leicestershire produce.  I look forward to seeing how that legacy is going to be built on.

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