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Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, March 25, 2009; 11:00 AM

In a city loaded with diverse restaurants, from New American chic and upscale Italian to sandwich shops and burritos on the run, finding the best places to eat can be a real puzzle. Where's the best restaurant for a first date or an anniversary? Father's Day? What's the best burger joint? Who has the best service?

Ask Tom. Tom Sietsema, The Washington Post's food critic, is on hand Wednesdays at 11 a.m. ET to answer your questions, listen to your suggestions and even entertain your complaints about Washington dining. Sietsema, a veteran food writer, has sampled the wares and worked as a critic in Washington, Seattle, San Francisco and Milwaukee, and can talk restaurants with the best of 'em. You can access his Postcards from Tom to read his recommendations for other cities, read his dining column, First Bite and the Dish or read transcripts of previous "Ask Tom" chats. Tom's Sunday magazine reviews, as well as his "Ask Tom" column, are available early on the Web.

For more restaurant chatter, join Sietsema's Table, Tom's new discussion group about dining experiences.

The transcript follows.

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Tom Sietsema: ATTENTION, JAPANESE LOVERS: Earlier this week, Nobu Yamakazi, the owner of Sushi Taro (1503 17th St. NW; 202-462-8999) in Dupont Circle, reopened his restaurant, which closed in December for an $800,000 makeover.

Everything about the place -- the furniture, the design, the menu -- has been upgraded, Yamakazi tells me.

Out: Spicy tuna and California rolls. In: Three distinct kaiseke menus, ranging in price from $65 to $75 a person. The seating has dropped from 120 to 70 chairs.

Any chance of opening something similar to the original sushi purveyor, which had a ton of fans? "Not for awhile," says the restaurateur, who opened for dinner on Monday.

Lunch service starts tomorrow. However, we'll all have to be patient for a chance to sit at the new six-seat sushi bar. The owner says he won't open it until after the Cherry Blossom festival -- sometime early next month.

Happy Wednesday, everyone.

washingtonpost.com: The Dish on Sushi Taro

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Washington, D.C.: Any thoughts on Potenza yet or is it too new? I'm eager to give it a try solely b/c they have pici on the menu.

Also, despite my earlier reservations about Posto (pizza that is pretty bad was just one problem), I am starting to warm up to it after several additional visits. The tagliatelle and baby chicken are both quite nice and I appreciate that they'll pour a 4 oz glass of wine. It is too bad that the pizza is so bad. Maybe they can get someone from Red Rocks to come down from Columbia Heights and give them some lessons.

Tom Sietsema: I just got off the phone with Dan Mesches, the owner of Potenza (1430 H St. NW), who gave me a verbal preview of his latest venture, which quietly opened for dinner on Monday night. (Lunch will be served beginning three weeks from now.)

"We took down the paper from the windows, and people started coming in," the restaurateur tells me.

Interior highlights: Hand-painted plates on the wall, plus an outsized recipe for "peas and meatballs," a dish Mesche says his grandmother used to make when he was a kid. The restaurant seats 180 in the dining room and will open a bakery on Monday. All the breads are baked in-house.

Food highlights: Thin-crusted pizzas and pastyas including thick spaghetti tossed with white anchovies, tarragon pesto and foccacia crumbs. Entrees run $12-$26 (for whole fish).

Sign of the times: Mesche tells me 2,000 people showed up to interview for 200 positions at Potenza.

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Arlington, Va.: My mom is coming into town for a little less than a week for the Cherry Blossom Festival and I want to take her around to a lot of the "special" D.C.-area places. I'm already planning on taking her to Ray's Hell-Burger, El Pollo Rico, Cosmopolitan Grill, Mark's Duck House, 2 Amys, Vidalia, Happy Hour at PS 7's and bar lunch at Restaurant Eve. I'm trying to keep it low cost (we're doing the early-bird dinner at Vidalia) are there any other places you'd really recommend in D.C. or Virginia that I'm missing? I could also use a suggestion for a place in Eden Center as I want to take her there but haven't been there myself.

Tom Sietsema: Your mom is one lucky diner! You've picked some very good spots (although I've never been to Cosmopolitan Grill and I haven't had the luck of others at Mark's Duck House.)

Don't forget the bar at Palena for roast chicken or a burger. At Eden Center, you should try the tasty Vietnamese sandwiches known as banh mi at a tiny stall called Nhu Lan. Last time I was there, the tiny subs cost $2.50. If you prefer to sit down, I recommend the nearby Huong Viet.

washingtonpost.com: 2006 Mini Review: Nhu Lan Sandwich Shop and 07 Mini Review: Huong Viet

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Manassas: Tom,

It was a pleasure to see you decided to journey to Prince William County.

Guess what, there's more to discover beyond 3.5 miles from Fairfax County line.

Please request additional mileage per diem and continue your quest for the best in culinary excellence south of the city.

Did you know Fairfax Co. was created FROM Prince William Co. back in the day?

Tom Sietsema: Ha!

I actually get outside of D.C. -- waaay outside the city limits -- quite a bit. It's just that I don't always like what I find, or think readers would benefit from some of those experiences. Bistro L'Hermitage was a delicious exception.

washingtonpost.com: This Week's Review: Bistro L'Hermitage

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Silver Spring, Md.: Tom, I just wanted to give a big shout out to a new Greek restaurant in downtown Silver Spring on Georgia Ave called Big Fat Greek. My husband and I saw that the menu seemed pretty creative and interesting so we decided to get some takeout. Wow, we were so impressed. I used to live in Dupont and I thought their food was head and shoulders above Zorba's. The Greek salads are so fresh and the dressing is home made. I get this special marinated grilled shrimp with mine and it even comes with capers! My husband loves the gyros with the extra crispy fries. I think it's really important to help independent restaurants like this succeed because our area is being inundated with mediocre food from chains. I think the owner does all the cooking himself in the back.

Tom Sietsema: I love the name. Thanks for sharing the tip.

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Washington, D.C.: I would like to get a $100 dining gift certificate for a couple that live in D.C. I want the $100 to cover the entire meal, including wine, as close as possible so that the couple does not need to spend any of their own money, nor do I want to go too casual where they need to order multiple desserts to use up the remaining balance. Suggestions?

Tom Sietsema: Hmmm. A nice dinner for two with wine that will come in at $100. Your best bets are Zaytinya, Mio, Cafe du Parc, Brasserie Beck ... choices enough?

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Washington, D.C.: In the March 11 chat, you mentioned a restaurant you found "so bad THREE TIMES". Has the First Bite article associated with this been written/posted yet?

Tom Sietsema: This smells like a publicist!

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Arlington, Va.: Feel compelled to voice an unfortunate complaint with the new Ray's the Steaks. I love both Classics and Hell Burger, but the new spot for Steaks left me cold. We felt as though we were in a cafeteria. The food was predictably tasty and a good value, but we were rushed throughout the meal (including placing the check on the table before we had a chance to order coffee and asking twice, within two minutes, if we had paid). In addition, the wait staff seemed to wear whatever they pleased and in one case, looked slovenly. Just a bad and strange experience, especially given the great attention to detail at his other places.

Tom Sietsema: You're not the only reader to complain to me about the new location's service or its appearance. While I appreciate the moderate tabs and the quality of (most of) the food, can't the staff members at least tuck in their shirts?

The food example set by owner Michael Landrum is a noble one. (Quality for the masses. I'm all for it.) But someone needs to remind the boss to shave before he plays host.

Maybe I just did.

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Washington, D.C.: Nhu Lan has raised the price of their Bahn Mi to $3.15. That being said, it is still delicious and a bargain.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for the update, and I concur: Still a steal.

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CapHill Re: Sushi Taro: No Spicy Tuna Rolls??!! NOOOOOOO! Spicy Tuna rolls may not be authentically Japanese, but Sushi Taro's were the best!!! Why would they change formats to compete with Makoto when they already had a good thing going?? I am very disappointed; Sushi Taro was my fave place for sushi.

Tom Sietsema: Why change the format? Yamazaki told me he wanted to up the ante for Japanese cooking in the area with his new restaurant.

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Rehearsal Dinner Help: The challenge: Falls Church area, private space for 30 or so, price (without liquor, taxes, tip) under $50 a head. Open to cuisine, but we have a couple of vegetarians in the group. I've picked a place, but not thrilled with it.

Tom Sietsema: Bamian (Afghan) is big and beautiful and delicious. You should also consider Four Sisters (Vietnamese).

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Logan Circle: I keep running into too-warm glasses of red wine. (Not literally.) This hasn't happened at high-end places, but it has at places that surprised me. Can you send out a plea to restaurants to serve red wine at the proper temperature, below room temperature?

Tom Sietsema: You're preaching to the choir. I've long complained about too-warm red wines in particular; their ideal temperature is between 60-65 degrees.

I frequently ask to have my reds chilled a bit after tasting them. I've also been known to plop an ice cube in a glass of red that's not sufficiently cool, although I try to remove the ice before it melts completely.

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Bethesda, Md.: Before you flying to Lisbon STOP at Tavira...

Wow! What a surprise. This restaurant is a hidden treasure, on Connecticut Avenue, away from plain eyesight, and visible only with a sign announcing its presence in a bank building. I must have passed this place in my normal travels, more than three dozen times without noticing the type of restaurant. I asked management if they could enlarge their sign so it is readable from the roadway. Because of slow traffic, I was able to see that it has Portugese and Mediterranean food. We were excited to try it BEFORE our upcoming trip to Lisbon.

Peter

Tom Sietsema: I've long been a fan of the basement dining room. The cooking there definitely whets the appetite for a trip to Lisbon.

washingtonpost.com: 2004 Dining Guide: Tavira

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Speaking of French restaurants: Tom- Why have you never mentioned Le Bastille in the northern end of Old Town Alexandria -- it's a huge favorite of mine and a new one for everyone I take. Another is Le Refuge on Washington -- it makes me feel like I'm in a French restaurant in Carmel, Calif. Nice!!!

Tom Sietsema: I had a really disappointing meal there shortly after it opened, so I put the place on the back, back burner. But I've subsequently heard enough good things, from enough discerning taste buds, to make me think I owe the restaurant another visit.

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Speaking of Ray...: Any news/thoughts about his new seafood place?

Tom Sietsema: It has yet to open.

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Re: Ray's: Last night was our first visit to any Ray's, and we enjoyed our dinner at the new Courthouse location very much. Our servers were attentive (and neat looking), gave advice, and were efficient rather than rushing. Extra spinach? No problem. One of the party not drinking alcohol? The server described the "boutique" soda selection. I'd been rather intimidated by the seating system at the old place to try it, but with a reservation, it was a breeze!

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for sharing your mini-review with the peanuts. (Or should refer to this distinguished group as macadamias?)

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Rough night?: Tom -- It seems you're moving a little slow this morning...

Tom Sietsema: Not at all. (Well, we DID make it to a third bottle of vino ...)

Seriously, I'm just trying to answer, thoroughly, the many questions we're getting today.

People! Please send in your questions and comments EARLY! As in, even a day before this 11 a.m. chat.

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Minibar: Eaten here? Worth the hefty price?

Tom Sietsema: Yes, three or four times. Worth the price? Sure.

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NYC, N.Y.: I will be in town only long enough to take a friend out for a birthday lunch, where would you suggest? Price is not a concern this time. :) Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: I adore Central on Pennsylvania. Great energy, imaginative food, and when you walk out of the place and turn to your left, there's the Capitol. Washington at its finest.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Dining Guide: Central

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Thomas Circle: Is your identity such a well kept secret that Katharine Weymouth wouldn't recognize you if you passed her on the street?

Tom Sietsema: Uh, no. But my photo does not appear on the WP's internal staff list with employees' bios and numbers. So we keep my identity pretty much under wraps, where possible.

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Reston, Va.: Tom -- wanted to go to the Inn at Easton, Maryland, but it looks like it is out of business. Any recommendations in that area?

Tom Sietsema: Oh, how I miss the Inn!

I still like going to Easton, though, for several reasons. They include Restaurant Local in theTidewater Inn, Thai Ki for the obvious and Scossa for Italian.

washingtonpost.com: Thai Ki or Scossa

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Tom, Happy Wednesday to you. Please, please help. I cannot find German food in the area. Any ideas? I'll drive, Metro, swim, etc., to get there.

Thank you!

Tom Sietsema: My last best German meal was a haul from the city, but also worth the trip: Schmankerl Stube in Hagerstown. Dig those pork shanks! Love that Black Forest cherry cake!

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Review: Schmankerl Stube

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Cleveland Park: Tom, what happens to the food if you send it back in a restaurant? This weekend at a local restaurant, the dish I served wasn't quite what I ordered. I didn't want to bring it to my servers attention -- not because I was too timid, but because I can't get my grandmother's voice out of my head -- the one that tells me that it is a sin to waste food. Can you, or any lurking restaurateurs tell me what happens to the dish I send back? If someone would tell me it gets put to good use somehow, I could stop finally eating overcooked steaks and mismatched sides.

Tom Sietsema: I suspect most of the food gets tossed out, because who wants to eat off a plate that was just returned from the dining room? I bet a smaller portion is re-served to an unsuspecting diner or eaten by the staff behind the scenes. (Having been a waiter in a previous life, I've seen it happen.)

Let's hear from any insiders who might be with us today.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, I love the communal table at Le Pain Quotidien, where I can enjoy brunch with old friends and share organic jam with new friends. Where else in Washington can I find a similar dining experience?

Tom Sietsema: Zaytinya has a group table. So does Buck's Fishing & Camping. And The Source (downstairs). And, and .... help me out, gang!

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, have you been back to Casa Oaxaca recently? I'm looking for nice Mexican and would rather not do small plates (which seems to be how Oyamel operates).

Tom Sietsema: Casa Oaxaca was a shadow of the original when I was last in a couple month ago. Now it's just another so-so place for Mexican.

washingtonpost.com: Casa Oaxaca

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Upstate N.Y.: Hi Tom,

Longtime-reader, first-time commenter, but your review of Firefly's new children's menu brought up something I'd like to discuss. It's no way to bring children up to appreciate good food if children's menus consist of nuggets and fries at every restaurant! I have two pre-teens who love all kinds of food, but are disappointed when we go out to eat and they are relegated to the same four options, no matter what else the menu holds. We've turned to just ordering appetizers for them at many places to avoid the same old, same old.

Chefs, please be aware that there are kids who love sushi and spicy food out there -- I know, I have two of them! Tom, any suggestions on places that have non-traditional kids' menus in the area for our upcoming trip in May?

Tom Sietsema: I actually pointed that out to the chef, the father of two little kids, and his response was basically, "Hey, I'm not going to tell parents what to feed their kids and these are foods that a lot of kids like."

I think it's up to chefs, however, to give kids annd their charges a varied menu, to make them LIKE some good-for-you dishes, either by presenting them in a new fashion (kid-size skillets or whatever) or "hiding" heathful ingredients in something.

washingtonpost.com: Dish: Firefly's New Children's Menu

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Brookeville: Hi Tom - Happy Wednesday -- when did Ray's move? And where is the new location. Does anyone post his menus? Thanks

washingtonpost.com: The new location for Ray's the Steaks: 2300 Wilson Blvd. in Arlington

Tom Sietsema: There you go, folks.

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Arlington, Va.: Tom,

Congrats on the James Beard nominations. I saw Jose Andres' name tied up to four of them, with two nods to The Bazaar, which I saw you just reviewed. Why, if in most of the reviews and press I am reading, is LA going crazy for what seems like we in D.C. already get at Jaleo, Cafe Atlantico, etc.? Is it just all "new" to them? Is it the design or layout of the space itself?

Tom Sietsema: Ah, now is the perfect time to applaud all the Washington chefs and restaurants who got nominated for both the local Rammy Awards and the national James Beard Foundation Awards. I'm thrilled for all of them and pleased to see the area so well represented.

Bazaar is great fun. If you've been to both Jaleo and Minibar here in D.C., you'll recognize some of the flavors and presentations. I had a blast on my two visits, although I didn't love everything.

washingtonpost.com: Nominees Announced For Food Awards and Today's First Bite: Tapas Chef, L.A.

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Dupont: Congrats, Tom, on the award nominations!! Quick question: I'm heading up to N.Y. at the end of April with my SO for her 45th birthday. I'm tempted to try to get into the notable restaurants but wanted to know if you had any suggestions on the less notable but still amazing places... Your help is greatly appreciated... BTW: Cintronelle is still fabulous.. I will miss Mark Slater but I love the place!

Tom Sietsema: You caught my Postcard from last week, right? I loved the look, feel -- and taste -- of Market Table in particular.

Of the biggies, you might make time for Eleven Madison, The Modern, Del Posto and Jean-Georges.

In-betweeners: Sushi Yasuda for the obvious and Felidia for Italian

Thanks for the kind words, by the way.

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Postcard From Tom: New York

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Tavira again: Adding to previous writer's review: A few months ago I wrote to ask about restaurants in/around Bethesda as I wanted to avoid the downtown scene over Inaugural weekend. One of the places you recommended was Tavira. We went. While the location is a bit odd, the dining room and food experience was much enjoyed by all and I've since recommended it to friends as something to try. Portuguese? Deliciously different!

Tom Sietsema: Deliciously different indeed. And it's kind of nice to see a veteran restaurant quietly go about doing very good food with very little fan fare.

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Washington, D.C.: Is it just me or is there not a single decent Chinese Delivery place in D.C.? People seem to like Mr. Chen's in Woodley Park, but I've found their food to be extraordinarily bland. I shouldn't have to douse my order in Sriracha to get some flavor on my Gen Tsos.

Tom Sietsema: I've had modest success with Banana Leaves (off Conn. on Florida) in the past. They're efficient and fast to boot.

washingtonpost.com: 2007 Review: Banana Leaves

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Just back from NYC: Just a comment -- I took your advice and in response to stellar service gave a good tip but also pulled the manager aside to thank her for the waiter's service...she was genuinely pleased. Thanks -- it felt great! BTW -- a "raw" restaurant -- I was skeptical but it was delicious.

Tom Sietsema: It DOES feel good to spread some well-deserved praise, doesn't it?

And do tell about the NYC restaurant. By "raw," you mean the ingredients aren't fully cooked?

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Portland, Oreg.: About the food that gets sent back to the kitchen -- it's supposed to get thrown away for sanitation reasons, but the old adage, "Never trust a skinny chef or a fat dishwasher" is true for many reasons.

Tom Sietsema: LOL

When I told a friend that I occasionally salt my desserts to prevent overeating, or mindlessly nibbling, he looked at me with wide eyes and said, "You know, when I was working in a restaurant, we used to eat those leftovers."

My apologies to any waiters who have eaten my leftover sweets.

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Posto: I thought the pizza was delicious! I went with two friends, and we ate every last bite. I guess to each her own.

Tom Sietsema: I STILL think the crust needs work.

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Review: Posto

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Dupont Circle, D.C.: Hi Tom,

Any recommendations for a birthday dinner for five -- somewhere nice, but not too pricey, and quiet enough that we don't have to shout during dinner conversation? Location is not a huge factor, but I would love a few recommendations in the Dupont or Georgetown neighborhoods. Thank you!

Tom Sietsema: As the clock ticks towards noon, I say: Corduroy, Bombay Club, Oval Room, Oceanaire , Tosca, New Heights ....

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Washington, D.C.: Any "good" restaurants in D.C. that you have had enough bad experience with that you feel no need to ever return? I feel this way about Rosa Mexicana...

Tom Sietsema: But I've always liked the margaritas and tableside guac and chips ...

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Community Table: The Heights has one for happy hours! In Columbia Heights!

Tom Sietsema: (Dare I?)

Oh, why not.

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Arlington, Va.: Picking between two restaurants -- 2941 and Restaurant Eve, for a nice dinner. Thoughts?

Tom Sietsema: No fair. They're both very special places for special reasons. 2941 has a stellar view, though. But I love the cocktails and the whimsy of Cathal Armstrong's food at Eve.

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Help! Smart Casual sparks Confusion...: Hi Tom! I read your chats all the time and have a question for you. I'm going to Adour tonight with coworkers and am perplexed by the "smart casual" dress code. Am I okay in dark jeans, ruffled dress shirt, heels, a nice purse and a blazer? I'm hoping so but don't want to over/under do it. We're going to a dive bar more-than-likely after, so I thought jeans are okay, but please tell me if I'm wrong. Also, and probably more importantly are there any top items on the menu you'd recommend?

Tom Sietsema: You'll be just fine. I've seen all manner of dress at Adour. Here's my review, for food ideas:

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Review: Adour

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Fast food: Do you ever cheat and get your food in a white bag from the drive-thru? If so, what do you order?

Tom Sietsema: True confession: I ate a Big Mac after the chat last week, because I was runnning errands near the FBI and noticed a sign inviting government workers a discount. So I had to investigate, right?

Okay, gotta dash. See you all next Wednesday!

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