June 19, 2016

Random Acts… Meet three memorable men in Florence, Italy

Posted in Dining, Spirituality, Travel at 10:15 pm by dinaheng

Dinah EngThe best part of any journey, for me, is talking with the locals, who know the best eateries, the best shops, and the places that define the soul of a city. On a recent trip to Italy with my sister, we met three memorable men in Florence. Their stories reveal the three best reasons to visit the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region – the Renaissance artistry, the warmth of the people, and the wonderful food.

The Maestro of alchemy and jewels

Hidden amid the narrow streets of the Oltrarno neighborhood is an unusual artisan workshop that takes you back in time to the Italian Renaissance. Housed in the 15th Century Palazzo Nasi-Quaratesi, jeweler-sculptor Alessandro Dari’s atelier has been recognized by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage as a Museo Bottega (museum workshop).

Walking into the small showroom, I’m dazzled by all the intricate pieces of handcrafted gold jewelry and small sculptures made of precious metals in the display cases. Collections called “The Keeper of the Soul,” “Alchemy & Magic,” and “Space & Time” tickle the imagination, making me want to meet the artist who created them.

After a few minutes, the maestro himself appears, clad in dark clothes and an industrial apron. Dari, who speaks little English, smiles with warmth and gives me a look at his workbench area. His fianceé Antonella, who speaks some English, serves as the interpreter.

“Alchemy was born centuries ago in China, Arabia, and Europe,” says Dari, pointing to various pieces around his laboratory. “In alchemy, the material has a soul. When you work with the material, you discover its soul.”

Alessandro Dari holds a sword designed to honor the practice of alchemy. Photo courtesy of Alessandro Dari.

Alessandro Dari holds a sword designed to honor the practice of alchemy. Photo courtesy of Alessandro Dari.

Dari, who made his first ring at age 16, studied chemistry at the University of Siena, intending to become a pharmacist. But a fascination with metalworking led him down another path. Today, his work is exhibited at the Silver Museum in Florence’s Palazzo Pitti and at the Cathedral Museum in Fiesole.

He teaches several students in the back of his workshop, using “sacred geometry” as the basis of his teachings. In other words, God created the universe with a geometric plan, and in the alchemic philosophy, he explains, “God and gold are the same. One lives in your soul, and the other in the material.”

Listening to him speak in Italian, I wish I could understand first hand what he was saying. One of the things that travel teaches you, though, is that when there is a will to communicate, there is a way. With each question I ask, the couple struggles to understand me, and shares the answers they think I am looking for.

Antonella explains that the techniques Dari uses stem from the Etruscan, Classical, Gothic and Renaissance periods. He takes particular pride in his “Collezione Castelli” (Castles Collection), where the architecture of castles was celebrated in his jewelry.

It’s amazing to know that everything from melting metals to engraving and the setting of stones is done in the tiny workspace behind the showroom. As I get ready to leave, the master goldsmith shares one last thought.

“Everything I do is about the elevation of the soul,” Dari says. “When the work is finished, I put every piece in a collection. I don’t know why themes emerge. It is something I feel inside. The point of life is to share emotion.”

Alessandro Dari’s museum workshop is at Via San Niccolo 115r, Florence, Italy 50125; Phone: +39 055 244747; http://www.alessandrodari.com/en/.

The Concierge

“Bene! Bene!” You can’t help but beam as Paolo Mori, concierge at the Hotel Lungarno, gives you an approving smile when you make a request, or take one of his recommendations. This is a man who could sell bottled sunshine because his heart is so open.

One afternoon, he tells my sister and me about an artisan workshop near the hotel. Rather than just give directions through the labyrinthine streets, he walks us through the neighborhood. Along the way, he shares the story of his life.

On one block, he points to the apartment building where he grew up. His father has passed on, but “my mommy is home now,” Mori says, happily. “I go to see her every couple of weeks, and she still cooks for me. She was a chef in a restaurant in Florence, so we ate well.”

The Oltrarno neighborhood of his childhood was a quieter place where he and his friends would play soccer in the street because there were no cars, tourists, or pollution to contend with. The cobblestone streets are still lined with small shops that the locals patronize. We stop in front of a local cobbler’s store.

Hotel Lungarno Concierge Paolo Mori. Photo by Dinah Eng.

Hotel Lungarno Concierge Paolo Mori. Photo by Dinah Eng.

“Here, they make handmade shoes,” Mori says. “When I was a kid, I would sit in that window, pretending to make shoes. It was great fun.” A few more feet and we cross the street. “And that’s where I went to church!” he exclaims. “On Sundays, we would visit the museums.”

He is proud of the neighborhood he calls home, and while he didn’t become a cobbler, he did try several other trades. He worked for a retailer, as a waiter, and tried plumbing before deciding to go into the hotel business. In 1997, he joined the Hotel Lungarno as a porter, was promoted to doorman, then concierge.

“I love my work,” Mori says. “Florence is my home, and I love to welcome everyone to my town. Every day is different because you don’t know who’s standing in front of you. It’s a universe of people from different countries and different perspectives.

“You have to figure out who’s in front of you, and what they’re looking for, in order to help welcome them. Florence is a warm town. It’s not Milan, where people are professional and stay cold.”

The oddest question he’s ever had from a guest? “One woman asked, where are the gondolas?” he says, laughing. “They are, as you know, in Venice. She was visiting so many different Italian cities that when we told her, she laughed, too.”

Mori has a fondness for America, having visited the United States on his honeymoon. He raves about the sights he took in at the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Los Angeles. “Bellisimo!” he says.

Today, his wife works at IKEA in Florence, and they have an 11-year-old daughter. The family lives in the city suburbs, but Mori still loves the Oltrarno neighborhood of his youth.

“I love every single corner, because every corner has a secret, or something particular that only those who live here see every day,” Mori says. “A lot of the historical shops have been replaced by tourist shops and commercial places. Fortunately, Florence is still a wonderful town. Perfecto!”

The Oltrarno (meaning “the other side of the Arno”) neighborhood, lies south of the Arno River in Florence. Known as a historic, working-class neighborhood, the area is filled with local restaurants, small artisan workshops, and antique shops. Hotel Lungarno, Borgo San Jacopo 14, Florence, Italy 50125; Phone: +39 055 27261; http://www.lungarnocollection.com/hotel-lungarno.

The Food Connoisseur

One rainy afternoon, it was time for lunch at Irene Firenze, the restaurant inside the historic Hotel Savoy off the Piazza della Repubblica, The menu is different than most places in town, so Paul Feakes, the restaurant manager, stops to chat and explain why.

“We designed a menu for women,” Feakes says. “Men enjoy it, too, but we were very aware that people’s tastes and needs have changed. So while the menu is authentically Tuscan, the dishes are lighter, healthier, and address a number of allergies and intolerances. Vegan, gluten-free, lactose intolerant, whatever you need.”

Irene (the name of hotel founder Sir Rocco Forte’s mother) was chosen to give the restaurant a feminine feel, rather than a masculine title that might suggest a bar.

“Tuscan food is traditionally very heavy and very meat-based,” Feakes explains. “Considering a female palate enabled us to get creative with the menu. As a result, we’ve seen huge growth in both Italian diners and new international faces.”

Paul Feakes, restaurant manager of Irene Firenze. Photo courtesy of Rocco Forte Hotels.

Paul Feakes, restaurant manager of Irene Firenze. Photo courtesy of Rocco Forte Hotels.

Feakes, who has lived in Italy for seven years, is a food connoisseur whose journey has taken him around the globe. Feakes started in the catering industry in Great Britain, moved to work in California, then to an ashram mountain community in India, two hours north of Mumbai, where he cooked for about 300 people.

Eventually, he returned to the UK, where he helped to grow catering brands and re-styled food operations in the House of Commons when he was recruited to open Portcullis House, a building in Westminster that houses members of Parliament and their staff.

After a slight detour to become a psychotherapist, Feakes, and his partner of 21 years, gave everything up to move to Florence in 2009, looking for a total life change. There, Feakes started a private cooking school and opened an art gallery in Northern Tuscany’s Pietrasanta.

“I devised a way to put my creativity, my love of food, and my need for another adventure together by teaching English through the medium of cooking,” he explains. “This led to teaching at the Savoy, and I returned to my roots of pure food and beverage when I took over as restaurant manager for Irene.”

Moving to Italy suits the food connoisseur, who learned to speak Italian gradually as he acclimated to his new home. “I make mistakes, of course, but I like to think that I make beautiful mistakes, or make mistakes beautifully,” he jokes.

He sees food changing in Florence and Italy in many ways, and dislikes the trend toward over-complicating traditional dishes. For his taste, Tuscan food should be simple, seasonal and flavorful. A simple bruschetta with wonderful fresh tomatoes under the Tuscan sunshine, he notes, is divine.

Yes, there are cultural differences between England and Italy, but Feakes is more than happy where he is.

“For me the Italian culture fits how I wish to live,” Feakes says. “I miss things from England — a great beer in a country pub and our sense of humor. But I just love life here – being outside under the sunshine, and the rhythm of the life. I feel like a new Florentine, not like a foreigner in a strange town.”

Irene Firenze, Piazza della Repubblica 7, Florence, Italy 50123; Phone: +39 055 27351; https://www.roccofortehotels.com/hotels-and-resorts/hotel-savoy/restaurant-and-bar/.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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May 29, 2015

Random Acts… Much ado about something

Posted in Dining, Relationships, Women at 11:22 pm by dinaheng

It was a Friday night at Umami Burger in Los Angeles. The restaurant was full of diners, chattering over their meals. A friend and I were seated in a booth when the couple on the other side of our booth started arguing. Let me rephrase that – the man in the other booth started yelling at the woman.

Cursing up a storm, he berated his companion for not appreciating the food that he, apparently, was paying for. No one seemed to be paying attention to his tirade except me, as I was looking straight at him.Dinah Eng

Then, he picked up his water glass and threw it toward his companion.

The glass shattered, half on the booth next to his companion, and half in our booth. Conversations immediately ceased, and anyone who was pretending to ignore the fellow turned to see what he would do next.

The man continued to curse at his companion, who remained silent through his tirade. Three waiters walked up to the man and asked him to leave. I kept thinking, “Please leave peacefully. Please don’t have a gun.”

After arguing with one of the waiters, the man left, declaring his right to use profanity in public, while continuing to swear at his female companion. A few seconds later, she got up, uninjured, and embarrassed.  Then she followed him out the door.

Once the couple left, people began talking again, as though everything were back to normal. I’m sure the conversations were about what had happened, but it felt eerie to see people laughing, as though the scene had just been a made-up moment from some TV show.

I had never witnessed such a tirade, tinged with the threat of violence, in a restaurant before. I was thankful that neither my friend nor I were cut by any of the flying glass, and I was sad that the man’s companion had left with him. She had said not one peep during his screaming rant, and that spoke volumes.

 

July 7, 2014

Random Acts… Sisters sample Big Apple in quick getaway

Posted in Dining, Entertainment, Travel, Women at 5:47 pm by dinaheng

If you only have two and a half days to sample the Big Apple, what do you do?

My sister Linda and I decided to get a small taste of our favorite things, and alternated cheap with luxurious along the way.

First off, we arrived the cheap way, taking a Newark Airport Express Bus ($16 fare) from the airport to the Port Authority Bus Terminal at Times Square, then grabbed a cab for a quick ride to the nearby Michaelangelo hotel on 51st and 7th Avenue.Dinah Eng

When it comes to luxury in the city that never sleeps, there’s nothing more luxurious than a truly quiet hotel room. The Michaelangelo, a midtown boutique with an Italian theme, offers wonderfully quiet and spacious rooms in a prime location. The elegant chandeliers, tufted sofas, and marble floors in its lobby are echoed in the plush carpeted rooms with marble bathrooms and gilded mirrors.

Complimentary coffee and pastries are available for breakfast in the lounge, as well as a 24-hour fitness center. This is not a hotel for business travelers, as there is no business center, but there is a multilingual concierge and a friendly — albeit understaffed — front desk that makes up for having to wait in line at various times. Summertime rates can run from $294 to $608 a night.

After walking through Times Square, looking for souvenirs for our nieces and nephews, we settled on t-shirts for the New York Yankees fan and some generic Big Apple symbols for the others. In search of a movie theater, we then wandered into the AMC Empire 25 on W. 42nd Street.

When three ticket machines didn’t work, we got in line and bought tickets for “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” The ticket seller forgot to give a receipt for the tickets, so I ended up in another line at guest services for that. Standing in line is something you get used to in this town. After the show, we grabbed a late take-out dinner of a burger for Linda and an omelette for me at one of the city’s ubiquitous, and totally forgettable, all-night diners.

The next day, we made up for the diner disappointment by checking out the $15 lunch special at Pazza Notte (1375 Sixth Avenue near 56th Street), an open-front restaurant with a lively bar crowd, even at the noon hour. This sweet little Italian eatery offers generous portions, so Linda and I shared some delicious Calamari Fritti and tried a couple of pasta entrees. Lunch was carbolicious, reasonably priced, and totally yummy.

To waddle off some calories, we took the subway (still a bargain at $2.50 for a single ride) in search of shopping. A friend gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of the Vince Camuto handbag showroom, then took us to the Vince Camuto store on 34th Street, where we browsed through shoes, handbags and jewelry by the designer who launched the Nine West brand, and picked out a few goodies.

Camuto, who now has his own brand, is also the design talent behind other brands like Jessica Simpson and BCBG. If you’re like me, and love flats, I can’t rave enough about his Louise de Cie shoes, made with soft, supple leather that makes you feel like you’re walking on a cloud.

As the afternoon drew to a close, Linda and I joined rush hour commuters on a subway down to the Financial District where we took in the new 9/11 Memorial Museum. The National September 11 Memorial Museum at the World Trade Center honors the nearly 3,000 victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and those who risked their lives to save others. Walking toward the entrance, I thought about that terrible morning, and the event that shocked the world. I was in Washington, D.C., attending a meeting, and turned on the television in time to see the second plane strike the Twin Towers.

We all fear dying on some level, but I think it’s the fear of losing loved ones, more than the fear of leaving this Earth, that grips our heartstrings. The tragedy of that day brought us together as a nation, and while nothing can take away the pain that resulted from those terrorist acts, I wish that unity would return and wipe out the partisanship nature of today’s political landscape.

9-11 Memorial Museum

9-11 Memorial Museum

Entering the museum at ground level, Linda and I walked down the ramp of an introductory exhibit that leads to the original foundation level of the Twin Towers. The atmosphere is dark and somber, appropriate for the space, yet overwhelming with all that is on display. Boxes of Kleenex are placed in various corners, and clearly used.

Tickets, which can be purchased three months in advance, are timed for entrance each day, and run from $15 for Youth (ages 7 to 17) to $24 for adults. If you can plan ahead, admission is free on Tuesday evenings from 5 p.m. to close. Same day tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis at the ticket window starting at 4:30 p.m., and a limited number of free tickets can be reserved online two weeks in advance. Be sure to get online promptly at 9 a.m. Eastern for those.

After trudging back to the hotel in the rain, we decided to try Rosie O’Grady’s, an old-fashioned steak and seafood place in the Broadway Theatre District (800 7th Avenue at 52nd). There, we had a wonderful dinner, sharing the Braised Spring Lamb Shank with Mashed Yukon Potato ($25.95) and Traditional Fish & Chips with French Fried Potatoes ($20.95).

On our last day, we headed to Lord & Taylor for a touch of old New York department store shopping, then walked around Times Square again before grabbing dinner and catching a show on Broadway.

There’s nothing I love more than musicals, and we were lucky enough to see “Newsies The Musical,” a Disney Theatrical Productions creation inspired by the real-life Newsboys Strike of 1899 in New York, which forced Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers to increase pay for the child labor force that delivered their papers. The line into the theater wound around the block, but amazingly, everyone got in before curtain.

In the musical, newsboy Jack Kelly (Corey Cott) joins forces with reporter Katharine Plumber (Liana Hunt) to fight the greed of newspaper baron Joseph Pulitzer (John Dossett). The two, of course, fall in love in the process. Winner of the 2012 Tony Awards for Best Score and Best Choreography, the show closes on Broadway August 24, and starts a North American tour in October. (For more info, check out http://www.newsiesthemusical.com/.)

The next morning, we left the city under rainy skies, and took an unexpected $110 cab ride back to Newark International Airport. Traffic was slow, with part of the cost being a $20 surcharge since the Yellow Cab driver wasn’t allowed to pick up passengers at Newark on his way back to the city. A car service might have been a better deal, but at least we didn’t have to have to wait in line in the rain.

 

January 23, 2014

How I Got Started: Wolfgang Puck’s dining revolution

Posted in Business, Dining at 3:43 am by dinaheng

It’s impossible to think of California cuisine without thinking of Wolfgang Puck. The man who popularized open restaurant kitchens, Puck, 64, introduced fine dining to the masses on TV and became one of the first celebrity chefs (a term he despises). Through his privately held company, whose revenues exceeded $400 million last year, he has parlayed his name into restaurants, frozen pizzas, appliances, cookbooks, and more.

To read the complete story in Fortune magazine, click here.

 

October 10, 2013

Friendship drives day-trip to Nashville

Posted in Art, Between Us column, Dining, Travel, Women at 10:34 pm by dinaheng

Take two girlfriends who haven’t seen each other in a couple of years, one day together, and where do you go?

My friend Christine and I decided to spend that day in Nashville, Tenn., an hour from her home and a four-plus hour plane ride from my home in Los Angeles. For two women who love to talk about everything, it was a sweet, albeit brief, reunion of two kindred souls.Dinah Eng

Arriving on Friday afternoon, we checked into the Loews Vanderbilt, a contemporary haven in Nashville’s Midtown, a charming and bustling area west of downtown by Vanderbilt University (2100 West End Ave.). The hotel, which has completed a $17 million renovation, features a new lobby, new guest bathrooms, a new Mason’s restaurant and Mason Bar, and an updated outdoor patio space.

The lobby has a definite masculine feel, with straight, square lines reflected in the furniture and dark wood paneling. A floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace adds warmth to the space, along with The Rehearsal Room, a group gathering space off the lobby. In the great room, a Hank Williams mural wall is a clever nod to country music singers, whose faces make up the little squares in the mural. Seating includes connectivity for those who need to stay plugged-in online.

Lobby fireplace at Loews Vanderbilt Hotel in Nashville. Photo courtesy of Loews Hotels.

Lobby fireplace at Loews Vanderbilt Hotel in Nashville. Photo courtesy of Loews Hotels.

After checking in, Christine and I made our way up to our room, stopping for a sip of “welcome fruit punch,” which was a great idea, but unfortunately, tasted like watered down Kool-Aid.

Upstairs, however, we were delighted with our room, which was both spacious and beautifully decorated in rust and beige colors. We were impressed with the layout of the room, which featured two comfortable beds, a side table with two lounge chairs, a desk and entertainment center. The wall by the bathroom door was angled, giving easier access to one of the beds, and a place to hang a full-length mirror, a creative use of space. The bathroom, which featured Lather Inc. toiletries, a walk-in shower, and tiles that looked like washed white Birchwood, was well-appointed and stylish. (Our room ran about $239 plus tax for a Friday night.)

After unpacking, we headed out to see The Parthenon in Centennial Park (2600 West End Ave.), just a few blocks from the hotel. The Parthenon, the world’s only full-scale replica of the famous Athens’ temple in Greece, was an impressive sight. The structure houses the city’s art museum and Athena Parthenos, a massive sculpture of the Greek goddess Athena by Nashville sculptor Alan LeQuire that stands nearly 42 feet tall, making it the largest piece of indoor sculpture in the Western World.

The Parthenon in Nashville.  Photo courtesy of Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The Parthenon in Nashville. Photo courtesy of Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“I love it that a city known for country music decided to call itself the ‘Athens of the South,’ “ Christine said.

Before long, it was time to head out to Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art (1200 Forrest Park Drive), a beautiful 55-acre estate in West Nashville built by the Cheek family, owners of a wholesale grocery business that invested in Maxwell House Coffee and made a fortune. Cheekwood offers lectures, special events, exhibitions and more yearround.

We were fortunate enough to catch part of Bruce Munro’s “Light At Cheekwood,” an amazing large-scale light-based installation that covered the grounds, along with a more intimate exhibit in the Museum of Art, a 30,000-square-foot Georgian-style mansion that was built for the Cheek family.

Inside the museum, we walked through works that Munro had designed, inspired by personal experiences, childhood memories, literature and popular culture. Each piece played with light, and as we walked past the word “Light” in different languages (“Lumiere,” “Luz” and “Licht”) on the wall above us, it was a reminder that when we see the light in everyone, we will understand that inside, we are all One.

Bruce Munro's "Light" exhibition at Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art. Photo by Kyle Dreier.

Bruce Munro’s “Light” exhibition at Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art. Photo by Kyle Dreier.

“So often, people don’t take the long view,” Christine said, looking at Munro’s pieces of light. “They’d rather talk about terrorists than who’s going to grow their food when the land is a desert because of climate change. People don’t want to change their behavior even a little because it’s inconvenient.”

After an all-too-short walk through the gallery, we returned to the hotel to rest and have dinner in our room. We talked about our lives, the need to make time for relaxation, and the blessing of our friendship. Before long, it was time to go to sleep.

The next morning, we decided to have breakfast at Marché Artisan Foods, a small cafe and marketplace in East Nashville (1000 Main Street). A popular neighborhood eatery, the place was filled with people waiting for a table. As diners waited, they could peruse the bakery case or look through cabinet shelves filled with items like Drew’s Brews, hand-roasted coffee made in Nashville and Apple Jams from the midwest.

The restaurant, which does not take reservations, has both individual and community tables. While it’s a charming space, be warned that the crowd is noisy and there are no acoustic features to dampen the din.

The breakfast menu runs the gamut from pastries and oatmeal to crepes and omelettes, with entrees reasonably priced around $10. I ordered an almond croissant ($2.75) and the Anson Mills Organic Oatmeal with plums and cream ($5). Christine had the Crepes du Jour ($10), made with roasted chicken, spinach and goat cheese, with roasted red pepper tomato sauce. We both ordered the Noble Blood Orange Juice ($4).

Sadly, the food was nothing special. My almond croissant tasted like it had sat in the case overnight. The oatmeal was fine, but not memorable. Christine called her crepes “ordinary.” We were both disappointed to discover that the orange juice was not fresh-squeezed, but was packaged.

All too soon, it was time to head out to the airport, and to say our good-byes. Nashville was a great rendezvous point, and as we hugged each other farewell, we promised that it wouldn’t be so long before we got together again.

That, of course, is the way all good visits should end.

September 16, 2013

AquaKnox features seafood treasures

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Travel at 4:24 pm by dinaheng

The soothing sound of a waterfall cascades down the wall at the entrance to AquaKnox, hinting at the peaceful culinary treasure tucked away amidst the noise of Restaurant Row in The Venetian Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

Seafood may not be top of mind for all diners, but the offerings in this fine dining establishment go beyond the typical fish and shrimp menu. Executive Chef Steve Aguglia calls the concept “global water cuisine,” prepared with influences from Asian and Latin cuisines.Dinah Eng

“All our seafood is fresh, flown in from places like New Zealand, France and Hawaii,” Aguglia says. “Our branzino comes from Greece. Our scallops are from the Georges Bank. We go around the globe to get the best fish, which must also be sustainable.”

Aguglia, whose restaurant experience started with washing dishes and working the tray line at UMC Hospital in Las Vegas, moved to Chef Joachim Splichal’s Pinot Brasserie at The Venetian Hotel, and gained experience in various stations before being named sous chef at the French eatery.

When AquaKnox beckoned, Aguglia accepted a position as line cook and helped open the seafood restaurant in 2003. Over the years, he worked his way up from kitchen manager to sous chef, then executive sous chef to executive chef. The Korean adoptee, who grew up in an Italian-American family, strives to create menus with a variety of tastes.

“We change the menu with every season,” he notes. “Everyone will find something to love here.”

Rob Menefee, general manager of the restaurant, says since AquaKnox is not a celebrity chef-driven restaurant, the food and the dining experience are the star of the show. The restaurant was recently awarded the 2013 Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Award, which recognizes AquaKnox as being “an outstanding establishment, offering guests a truly exceptional level of luxury and service” in the Las Vegas upscale dining scene.

“We’ve cultivated a great staff, with culinary chefs who have stayed through the years, which is unheard of on The Strip,” Menefee says. “Our average dinner is usually around $100 per person, but you can have an amazing meal here if you’re frugal, as well.”

Appetizers here range from $15 for the Lobster Bisque Soup to $18 for the Prince Edward Island Mussels. Seafood entrees range from $32 for the New Zealand Ora King Salmon to $46 for the AquaKnox Fish Soup, a Mediterranean tomato-saffron broth, with Maine lobster, John Dory, mussels, clams, prawns and Sardinian couscous.

AquaKnox Wine Tower.  Photo courtesy of AquaKnox.

AquaKnox Wine Tower. Photo courtesy of AquaKnox.

For land lubbers, the U.S.D.A. prime steaks are mesquite charcoal grilled, with shishito peppers, grilled onions and potato puree, with prices ranging from $49 for the 14 oz. New York Strip to $56 for the 20 oz. Bone-In Ribeye.

Vegetarians will find a nice selection of entrees, salads and sides.

On a recent evening, we sampled the Tuna Tartar “Gangnam Style,” ($18), which featured the taste of Korean chili vinaigrette, Asian pear sesame, shiso and tempura crunch, creating an interesting kick for the palate. For a salad, we had the Sweet Shrimp and Lump Crab ($18), which was served with a lovely combination of Asian greens, cantaloupe, and avocado with sesame-citrus vinaigrette.

When it comes to seafood, the New England John Dory ($45), served with lobster succotash, fava beans, sweet corn nage and summer truffle was superb. The fish was nicely done, and its slightly sweet accompaniments were wonderful. The Pacific Blue Prawns ($35), with golden pearl couscous, lobster cream, and cherry tomatoes in scampi garlic butter, was also delicious.

The dessert menu seemed a little pedestrian, compared to the rest of the menu, with standards like Ice Cream & Sorbets ($8) and Flourless Chocolate Cake ($12).

Service here is truly impeccable, with an attentive wait staff, and nice touches like getting warm towels after handling messy crab claws or lobster legs.

The nautical decor feels a little dated with blue portals (filled with bottles of liquor) behind the bar, and a dining room meant to evoke the feeling of sailing, with sheer drapery above the intimate booths that sway a little with the air conditioning. Menefee says a $1.5 million renovation is slated for next summer, which hopefully will retain the Wine Tower of 2,000 wine bottles at the entrance that doubles as a very private (and chilly) dining room for small parties.

For a quieter table, ask to be seated in the rear of the restaurant, where a peaceful looking curtain (made of intricate chains, patterned with aqua circles), separates diners from the open kitchen and the noise of Restaurant Row.

If you’re looking for a wonderful seafood meal in Vegas, AquaKnox is not to be missed.

For more information, check out http://www.aquaknox.net/ on the Internet.

August 23, 2013

Birthday surprise makes Disneyland visit special

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Entertainment, Travel at 12:30 am by dinaheng

You can celebrate all kinds of special occasions at Disneyland. People go to commemorate wedding anniversaries, first job, first baby, you name it, and the folks at the park will do their best to help you celebrate.

When my dear friends Lesley and Shane decided to come to Los Angeles for a visit, the dates turned out to be the week of Lesley’s birthday, so Shane and I conspired to create a Disney experience fit for… well, a grown-up princess. Dinah Eng

This is a couple, after all, who spent their honeymoon at Disneyland, and over the years, have tried to bring their two children, Mikhaila, 12, and Ben, 8, to the park as often as possible. We told Lesley that we’d be going to Disneyland for the day and staying overnight in the area, but didn’t tell her that the folks at Disneyland had arranged for that stay to be at the Grand Californian Hotel & Spa.

When we drove up to the entrance of the elegant hotel, designed as an homage to the Arts and Crafts era, Lesley was shocked. As Shane parked the car, we checked into the stunning hotel that has its own entrance to Disney California Adventure Park, the sister park to Disneyland, and Downtown Disney. Walking into the lobby, which features a massive fireplace, natural cherry wood floors with ebony and mahogany accents, and wood columns and walls of African mahogany veneer, is like walking into a grand lodge from another age.

As soon as we told the clerk we were celebrating Lesley’s birthday, he made her a personalized birthday button to wear, “so that everyone here will know to wish you a happy birthday.” Talk about being made to feel special…

Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa lobby.  Photo courtesy of Disney.

Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa lobby. Photo courtesy of Disney.

The kids, of course, couldn’t wait to get into Disneyland. A few hours later, after going on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, Lesley and I sat in New Orleans Square as Shane took the kids to climb Tarzan’s Treehouse.

“We got married in October 1993, and we were working two jobs,” Lesley recalled. “Shane was working at a process engineering company, and I was at a newspaper in Arizona. On the weekends, we’d clean the offices he worked at. It was a year after the wedding, when we’d saved enough to go on vacation, that we decided to take a delayed honeymoon. We both wanted to go to Disneyland. You come here, and everybody’s smiling. All you have to do is have fun, and eat good things.”

As the years went by, Disneyland became a vacation destination with the children whenever possible. The two use Disney-branded credit cards to take advantage of the loyalty rewards, even when, as Shane jokingly told a customer service rep on the phone, “It’s humiliating to have Tinkerbell on my card.” The rep immediately asked, “So do you want Woody and Buzz?”

That evening, we had dinner at Cafe Orléans, which offers everything from a Monte Cristo Sandwich to a Seafood Herb Crepe in a casual setting.  Dinner entreés range from $15.49 to $19.49 for adults, with a kids’ menu under $9. After a satisfying meal, Lesley was surprised with a birthday cake, topped with a piece of white chocolate, embossed with Mickey Mouse (prices start at $52), and the kids each received a mini-birthday cake ($15), which came in a Disney Princess Jewelry Box and a Disney Pirate Treasure Chest.

“When you make a reservation at any of our table service restaurants, you can order a cake, as well as through hotel room service,” explained Karlos Siqueiros, food and beverage concept development manager for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts U.S. “If you celebrate at Ariel’s Grotto, you may be surrounded by princesses, and there’s a mix of characters who’ll celebrate with you at Goofy’s Kitchen.”

Siqueiros, whose department is responsible for designing all the food novelty items in the park (think Dumbo or R2D2 as a popcorn bucket), says Disneyland has fulfilled many different birthday requests over the years.

There was the 84-year-old woman who got a meet-and-greet with Cinderella, her favorite princess, or the little boys who want to meet Buzz Lightyear. One year, a child got to ride in a fire truck down Main Street with Mickey, through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

“Birthdays here are about being a kid, no matter your age,” says Siqueiros, who celebrates with his wife and kids at the park every year. “When I turned 50, the goal was to do 50 things in one day, and we did it. Birthdays are a way to celebrate people, to say to them, ‘The best thing that happened today was that you were born.’ ”

Lesley's birthday dinner at Disneyland's Cafe Orleans.

Lesley’s birthday dinner at Disneyland’s Cafe Orleans.

While a day at the park may mean tired, achy feet from standing in lines and running from one ride or live show to the next attraction, Shane says it’s all worth it to share moments of joy and wonder with the family.

“It’s a part of our family history to come to Disneyland,” he says. “It’s having a whole day of adventure with the kids. When they’re really young, it’s about chasing down the autographs with all the characters. Then it was how many times we could go on a ride. There was a Pixar Parade where the floats would shoot Nerf balls, and we collected them. Our rule was that we’d have to give away half of what we picked up to other kids who didn’t get one.”

And then, there’s the Matterhorn, a roller coaster ride not for the faint of heart.

The day after Thanksgiving 2008, an errant golf ball hit Mikhaila on the side of her head above the temple. A doctor in an urgent care center said the little girl’s eyes were dilating, so nothing was wrong. But Lesley’s intuition said otherwise, so they took her to a hospital emergency room.

“The doctor there said Mikhaila was fine, and he would not recommend that insurance cover a brain scan,” Lesley says. “I said I don’t care, we’ll pay for it. So they took a scan, and the doctor came to us to apologize, and said at that point, her condition was probably fatal. Her head was full of blood. By then, we’d whittled away three hours, and she was dying the whole time.”

An emergency helicopter took the little girl away to a trauma center, with the parents racing by car to follow. Mikhaila was diagnosed with an epidural hematoma (the same condition that killed actress Natasha Richardson after a skiing accident in 2009).

“Fortunately, one of the best neurosurgeons in the West was on call, and that probably saved her life,” Lesley says. “They cut the top of her skull off, got the blood out, and secured her head with metal. A year later, they took most of the metal out. Everything was too much for her at first — having a shaved head, sensitivity to noise, dizziness and nausea from fast motions — but she was determined to lick it. Now, the headaches have ebbed, and we just watch her carefully.”

As Mikhaila recovered, her parents decided a trip to Disneyland would lift her spirits.

“After her injury, she asked to get back on the Matterhorn, which was a big healing moment,” Shane says. “We wanted her to know she’s still the same little girl, and would  go on to have adventures in her life. It was a big confidence thing for her to ride the Matterhorn again, and we did it six times in a row.”

After dinner, we headed back to the Grand Californian Hotel to freshen up before catching the “World of Color” nighttime water and light show in California Adventure Park. Walking into the room, the kids were delighted to find chocolates on the bed, and a “Giant Sequoia” seed germination kit. Not only that, there was a huge Disney birthday gift basket for Lesley.

The kids, who wanted to stay up, talked Shane into doing another hour of rides before the park closed. So the three of them took off, while Lesley and I relaxed at the hotel. Before long, Lesley’s phone rang. Shane told her to go out on their room balcony, and watch the track below. It was pitch dark, and as the monorail rushed by below, we could see hands waving out of an open window and heard yells of “Hi, Mom!” below.

When everyone re-grouped, it was nearly midnight. One of the nice things about being a Disney hotel guest is you can get into the parks for select attractions an hour earlier than the general public. So Lesley and Shane agreed to get up early, if the kids would go to bed — immediately.

At 7 a.m., Mikhaila dragged Lesley off to Disneyland. Shane resisted Ben’s tugs to leave until about 8:15 a.m.  Me, I just slept in and met them later. The rest of the day zoomed by as we took in Disneyland’s newest show, “Mickey and the Magical Map,” rode “Star Tours” in Tomorrowland, and headed back to California Adventure Park for “Soaring Over California.”

Before leaving the Happiest Place on Earth, we had to do one last thing. We stopped at the pavement between the entrances to Disneyland and California Adventure Park to search for a brick paver that Lesley had bought as a Christmas gift for Shane in 2006, engraved with their family name.

Family's paver found at Disneyland.

Family’s paver found at Disneyland.

I volunteered to take a photo of the family with their brick, and they promptly laid down on the ground, with their heads surrounding their little piece of Disneyland. Now that’s a birthday picture they’ll never forget.

For information on how to celebrate birthdays at Disneyland, check out http://disneyland.disney.go.com/special-occasions/birthdays/

April 19, 2013

Queen Mary graces Long Beach harbor

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Travel at 6:40 pm by dinaheng

My sister Linda and I fell in love with London a few years ago, so on a weekend trip to Long Beach, we had to make a stop at the Queen Mary.

One of the biggest attractions in Long Beach, this historic vessel was considered the grandest ocean liner ever built when it launched in 1936. During World War II, she was pressed into service and became known as “The Grey Ghost,” carrying more than 800,000 troops through dangerous battles. In her retirement, she was purchased by the City of Long Beach, and is now a hotel and tourist destination.Dinah Eng

The ship offers numerous tours and exhibits pegged to its history during the war, and paranormal activities that have been reported aboard over the years. We took in two of the tours, “Ghosts & Legends,” a 35-minute walk with special effects that took us through the old boiler room, the hull and First Class swimming pool, and “Haunted Encounters,” an hour-long tour that explored more of the ship and gave an overview of the ghostly sightings that have been reported.

While “Ghosts & Legends” was entertaining, the special effects seemed rather cheesy, and the narrator couldn’t have been more bored, telling stories he’s no doubt told thousands of times over the years. Being able to walk through areas of the ship that once hummed with life on the “Haunted Encounters” tour, without the artificial theatrics, was much more satisfyng. History, after all, has a way of speaking for itself.

Queen Mary in Long Beach - Photo courtesy of the Queen Mary

Queen Mary in Long Beach – Photo courtesy of the Queen Mary

The highlight of our visit to the ship was seeing the exhibit on “Diana: Legacy of a Princess.”  The collection of dresses, photographs, hand-written letters and other memorabilia associated with Princess Diana and the Royal Family gave me a greater appreciation of the woman the world loved; sadly, more than the man she married loved her.

As a banner quoting her said, “I think the biggest disease the world suffers from is the disease of people feeling unloved. I know that I can give love for a minute, for half an hour, for a day, for a month, but I can give. I am very happy to do that… I want to do that.” If only everyone felt that way.

A deck of gift shops offers plenty for browsers and shoppers to enjoy. We couldn’t resist getting a sweet teddy bear t-shirt for one of our nephews, and knowing that I love stuffed animals, Linda bought me a Queen Mary Captain Teddy Bear.

Diana: Legacy of a Princess exhibit - Photo courtesy of the Queen Mary

Diana: Legacy of a Princess exhibit – Photo courtesy of the Queen Mary

For dinner that evening, we sampled the offerings at Chelsea Chowder House, a fish house that features what I call “safe food,” the kind of menu you can find at most conventional restaurants catering to tourists who may not have adventuresome tastebuds. With entreés ranging from Bass Ale Battered Fish and Chips ($21) to Surf & Turf ($40), there’s sure to be something that appeals.

Linda chose the Fried Seafood Platter ($29), shrimp, scallops, crab cakes with basil, lemon, tartar sauce, with French fries (which she substituted with Yukon mashed potatoes). I had the Black Board Market Fresh Fish ($28), which that evening was sea bass grilled with lemon butter sauce, rice pilaf and seasonal vegetables

As we waited for our meal, we enjoyed the lovely sunset out the window, while a manager explained that the restaurant was once part of the ship’s deck, converted to give nighttime diners a view of the harbor. It was easy to sit and imagine diners of the past enjoying their meals in the civilized luxury of the times.

Our dinner, unfortunately, was a disappointment. The food was inconsistent and tasted like something you’d expect at a casual restaurant like TGI Friday or Red Lobster. While Linda’s broccoli was nicely sautéed, the Yukon mashed potatoes were watery. My sea bass was in need of some seasoning, but filling. The bread, a warm French baguette from La Brea Bakery, saved the meal from being totally pedestrian.

The service was excellent, though, and as we walked off the ship, it almost felt like a cool London night.

For more information, check out www.queenmary.com.

April 18, 2013

Long Beach offers leisurely weekend activities

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Travel at 7:13 pm by dinaheng

My sister Linda and I love weekend trips where there’s something new to see, great food to sample, and time to just be together without planning out every minute.

One recent weekend, I picked her up at Los Angeles International Airport and we decided to go to Long Beach, about a 40 minute drive away. The name Long Beach may evoke images of longshoreman at a port of call (which it is), but it’s also a city with a rich history and lovely neighborhoods.Dinah Eng

Originally settled by the Spanish, the area grew as a commercial center and resort town, known for its long, wide beaches.  In 1921, oil was discovered, and building boomed, until the earthquake of 1933.  Much of the downtown area was rebuilt in Art Deco style, which can still be seen today.

In more recent years, Long Beach’s proximity to Los Angeles made it the site of four Olympic events during the L.A. Olympics in 1984, and a number of tourist attractions from whale watching to this week’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (April 19-21, 2013) now draw visitors to the area.

We decided to stay at Hyatt the Pike (http://www.thepikelongbeach.hyatt.com/hyatt/hotels-thepikelongbeach/index.jsp?null), a lovely boutique hotel in the middle of The Pike at Rainbow Harbor, a shopping, dining and entertainment complex near the beach.

The lobby, which has wonderfully cush rocking chairs, opens to a lively bar and restaurant on one end, and a small fitness center and business center alcove on the other.  A great rooftop pool, protected by glass partition windbreakers, offers patio and lounge seating, with panoramic views of the city and harbor.

Our room, done in contemporary soft gray tones, featured a fun sliding pocket door to the bathroom. If you love taking luxurious showers, this is the kind of large, walk-in stall you want, complete with a choice of rain head shower fixture or hand shower, and a wooden bench to sit on or put toiletries on.

From the hotel, it was a short walk to a number of touristy shops, so Linda and I strolled around Shoreline Village at Rainbow Harbor and the stores at the Pike. Readers who love used books stores should check out Piccolo Books underneath the Cinemark Theatres.

Belmont Shore shopping - Photo courtesy of Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau

Belmont Shore shopping – Photo courtesy of Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau

The best “specialty” shopping, though, was found on Second Street in a neighborhood called Belmont Shore. With more than 250 businesses, it was fun to walk through the gift shops and clothing stores, browsing the wares. Our favorite find was Luna (http://www.lunabelmontshore.com/), a lovely gift shop that features exquisite jewelry, art glass and hand-made pottery.

While interesting restaurants are everywhere, an eatery named Nick’s on Second (http://www.thenickco.com/nickson2.php) beckoned. We have a nephew named Nick, and a look at the menu gave me a good feeling, so we went in to try their classic American comfort food. With everything from burgers and sandwiches, to salads and short ribs, there was plenty to choose from.

Linda, who loves to make deviled eggs for family parties, ordered the Fried Deviled Eggs ($6), which were amazing. A Nick’s original, this version fried the white of the egg, and placed it between the mashed yolk topped with bacon bits. She chose Nick’s Ribeye Melt ($15), while I had the Tuna on marble bread ($12) and a side of Mac & Cheese ($5). We both split the restaurant’s Warm Butter Cake ($8), which was indescribably delicious. Think of a mixture of lemon, vanilla, and raspberry flavors, and forget the calories. As we waddled out the door, we both wished there was a Nick’s closer to home.

One of the best reasons to stay at Hyatt the Pike is its location, which also happens to be just across a pedestrian bridge to the Aquarium of the Pacific (http://www.aquariumofpacific.org/), a beautiful homage to the world’s largest ocean that is both entertaining and educational.

Aquarium of the Pacific sits on the water.  Photo courtesy of Aquarium of the Pacific.

Aquarium of the Pacific sits on the water. Photo courtesy of Aquarium of the Pacific.

“We have a very interactive aquarium,” explains Lori Perkins, interpretation manager for the facility. “You can go to Shark’s Lagoon, for example, and touch a shark. You learn that most sharks are not dangerous to humans, and are important to our ecosystem, so it’s important to protect them.”

We loved seeing the June Keyes Penguin Habitat, which has a crawl space that makes you feel like you’re in the exhibit with the animals. The Magellanic penguins live in temperate climates, so don’t need ice and snow to be happy. Linda was taken with the cute-looking creatures, and tapped on the glass of their swimming pool, hoping they’d swim over to her… and they did.

Another popular exhibit is the Lorikeet Forest, where more than 100 small, brightly colored birds from Australia live. If you buy a small cup of nectar, they’ll flock to you to get a taste of the treat. While I didn’t have any nectar on me, one chose to land on my  head anyway. I could feel its talons walking around overhead, but when Linda and I  walked toward the exit, the lorikeet decided to go in search of a nicer nest. Talk about feeling like you’re really in the middle of a forest!

For dinner, Linda and I both love Italian food, so we tried La Traviata (http://latraviata301.com), a wonderful restaurant-bar downtown that has both old world charm and food that would please any gourmet’s palate. The menu, deceptively simple, offers homemade pastas and entreés that would stand out in any fine dining restaurant.

For an appetizer, we tried the Coco Prawns ($12), which were large, tiger shrimps done tempura-style, with kumquat mustard sauce. They were so good, we were almost reluctant to move on to the rest of the meal. But the best was yet to come.

For our entreés, we started with the Chilean Sea Bass ($39), which came miso glazed, with Tobiko caviar, Jasmine rice and seasonal vegetables. This fish melts in your mouth, with a delicate flavor that clearly makes it a house favorite. Then came the Diver Sea Scallops ($28), wrapped in Dover sole, lemon, butter, capers, and fried Julienne vegetables.  I didn’t care for the fried vegetables, but a taste of the Wild Mushroom Tortelli ($19), stuffed with portobello, shitake and button mushrooms in a garlic parmesan sauce, more than made up for it.

Dessert was an amazing Tiramisu ($8) with vanilla gelato, strawberries and blueberries. We didn’t leave a bite.

The restaurant, which opened in 1997, is the creation of owner Mario Nasab, who managed small restaurants in London before moving to Long Beach. “I wanted to do something around the opera ‘La Traviata’ and Italian food,” Nasab says. The restaurant, housed in the Wiltmore Building, a 1920s Long Beach landmark, is an intimate setting that also features entertainment during the week. Nasab, who makes the rounds to greet diners each evening, has created a neighborhood favorite not to be missed.

For a weekend getaway, Long Beach had more to offer than we had time to sample. All the more reason to go back.

For more information on where to stay, dine and local attractions, check out the Long Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau at http://www.visitlongbeach.com/.

Next: The Queen Mary

April 11, 2013

Wicked Spoon satisfies diverse tastebuds

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Travel at 10:04 pm by dinaheng

Casino buffets known for their cafeteria line, eat-all-you-want atmosphere are a fixture in most Las Vegas casinos, but a few upscale venues are turning to the more refined small plate concept in offering their variety of cuisines.

At The Cosmopolitan’s Wicked Spoon, there are six stations — an Asian kitchen, Italian kitchen, carving station with carved meats, “Comfort International” featuring classics with a twist (think shrimp and grits), a salad station, and the dessert station.Dinah Eng

The majority of items are served in small plates or pots, which is good for portion control but awkward for carrying selections to the table. With 120 items on the buffet, the restaurant averages 1,700 to 2,500 diners a day, depending on the day of the week.

“The theme behind the Wicked Spoon is an upscale food hall,” says Bryan Fyler, executive sous chef of the Cosmopolitan-owned restaurants in the hotel. “You get restaurant-quality food with different cuisines in small plates. Because we’re open all day, we want guests to have the same experience, no matter what time they come in.”

Fyler says the buffet’s most popular items include the Korean short ribs, crab legs, the chocolate-covered strawberries, and the gelato (you can choose from 18 flavors).

“We have a lot of repeat customers, locals and people from Los Angeles who come for a weekend getaway,” Fyler says. ”We change dishes with the seasons, using the ingredients that are the freshest.”

Fyler served as an executive chef for China Grill Management at the Mondrian Hotel in Miami and chef de cuisine of the Boca Raton Resort & Club’s Chauncey’s Restaurant before moving to Las Vegas to help open The Cosmopolitan’s restaurants.

“We didn’t want to call the Wicked Spoon a buffet, but the setting allows you to try a vast majority of the offerings in one shot,” he notes. “It’s all about value these days.”

Photo courtesy of The Cosmopolitan Las Vegas

Photo courtesy of The Cosmopolitan Las Vegas

The contemporary tangerine and brown decor of The Wicked Spoon feels like an upscale restaurant, and video screens above the various stations offer tidbits of culinary information, such as the definition of parfait (the French word for “perfect,” which began referring to frozen desserts in 1894). It’s unfortunate that the acoustics don’t dampen the clatter of pans in the kitchen area.

On a recent Thursday evening, the offerings were interesting, but the taste and presentation inconsistent. The prime rib was perfectly done, and mashed potatoes nicely seasoned, but the citrus-glazed salmon over peas had been sitting under the heat lamp too long. The steamed rice and wok-tossed Udon noodles in individual Chinese carryout boxes was a cute touch, but putting two pieces of duck ravioli in a pot seemed a little too stingy a portion.

The best station was the desserts, which had a wonderfully moist carrot cake, a scrumptiously tart strawberry key lime shot, and yummy cranberry oatmeal cookies.

The worst part of the evening was the inattentive wait service. Each time we went to get food, we’d come back to dirty dishes from the last round still on the table. We solved the space problem by stacking the dishes as we ate.

The Wicked Spoon isn’t wicked great, but it’s definitely worth trying if you’re looking to sample new cuisines without breaking the bank.

Brunch ($24) is served Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., and on weekends ($33) from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Dinner ($38) is served Sunday to Thursday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. On weekends, dinner ($41) is served Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Alcoholic beverages are extra.  Alcoholic beverages are extra.

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