Book Review: Shaun Tan’s The Arrival

The ArrivalThe Arrival by Shaun Tan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. I’m stunned by this book.

I’ve read a lot of comic books in my time, and some graphic novels, so on first glance, I wondered how the format would work. The panels are mostly square, a series of 12 or 20 of them, say, and then a larger illustration.

Tan creates his own rhythm and style, and basically, from the first pages, I was drawn in. The smaller drawings require more attention, simply to take in what’s happening, so when a larger view appears, a punctuation or emphasis, it has this feeling of emotional enlargement as well.

When the protagonist of the book sees scenes of his new city for the first time, I felt this same sense of a huge, unfamiliarity looming over me. And they took my breath away, these images. The first are identifiable, a father leaving his wife and child, to emigrate. And then wonderfully, it’s clear that this is not a literal tale. There are dragons. There are strange and charming creatures. The language is incomprehensible.

And yet what is clear and understandable are the emotions, the small victories and challenges of the protagonist as he makes his way into this new life. The drawings are *beautiful*: moody, emotional, gorgeous. And the creation of these worlds and this story, all in images: what a wonderful achievement.

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COVID-19 lockdown cocktails

Um. We’re in lockdown. COVID-19. This would seem to be a good time to have a cocktail. Since what else are we going to do? (Rhetorical question: don’t answer it).

So, the biggest success so far has been pre-mixed negronis, nuked in the microwave, and made in a batch. Look up @mrlyan on instagram or google Ryan Chetiyawardana’s recipe for the Nuked Negroni, where the usual suspects (gin, red vermouth and campari) are infused with blackberries, grapefruit peel and rosemary in the microwave at 600w for 3 minutes.

Then, when you want to use it, you just stir 3 ounces (per person) with ice until it’s cold, and then pour onto a big old ice cube. I love negronis. I’m pretty indiscriminate and don’t often meet a negroni I don’t like, so I can’t tell if this one is better, but I like to think it is.

I found another recipe for bulk, nuked Vieux Carrés (a drink originating from New Orleans), so that’s next on my list to try.

Part of the fun of making cocktails is seeing what ingredients are on hand! As we found a bunch of limes on special at Harris Farms, and a friend who stayed with us gave us a bottle of rum (which we weren’t keeping a regular stock of), I decided to make Boston Sidecars the other night:

🍸 3/4 ounce rum
🍸 3/4 ounce brandy
🍸 3/4 ounce grand marnier
🍸 1/2 ounce lime juice

Shaken with ice, served in a sugar-rimmed glass and we couldn’t resist putting in a maraschino cherry 🍒 It was lovely. A little bit on the heavy side, but the lime juice lifts it.

Other cocktails which I didn’t take photos of: the Dark and Stormy (ginger beer, rum and a twist of lime: very nice); and to use up some Pimm’s we had stored, a Pimmlet (instead of a regular old Pimm’s cocktail):

🍸 25 ml Pimm’s No.1
🍸 25 ml Gordon’s Gin
🍸 25 ml fresh lime juice
🍸 Dash of sugar syrup
🍸 Cucumber slice
🍸 Mint leaves

Pimm’s and cucumber seems a classic combination. Great for a hot day. Making this inspired me to make my own sugar syrup, so stay tuned for some more cocktails that make use of that!

The night before last was Angostura Bitter Sour, as years ago, I had accidentally bought a second bottle of bitters, when we already had one. So I wanted to get down to one bottle (impossible unless you us more of it than the usual 3 dashes). In the meantime, I had some egg whites leftover from making ice cream, so this was the perfect recipe. It was surprising good, perhaps like a Jagermeister cocktail instead of a shot, some deep and rich herb flavours (🍸 an ounce of bitters) mellowed with sour (🍸 an ounce of lime juice) and sweet (🍸 an ounce of sugar syrup). All shaken up with the egg white to make it foamy. This was a fun experiment (with a pretty deep purple/brown colour) but I’m not sure I’d do it again.

Last night was also a pretty cocktail. We’ve become fans of Fever-Tree tonics, but for my last liquor run at Dan Murphy’s (where I treated myself to a number of ingredients to make NEW cocktails with), they were out of every flavour of tonic instead of the lemon tonic water. When I looked it up on various websites, mixologists are VERY specific about matching this tonic water to certain ingredients, rather than just making a lemony gin and tonic.

The ‘Bitter Lemon Cooler’ was refreshing, and pretty. I’m likely to make it again sometime, and it’s a good way to use up dry vermouth, which is impossible to use up with the whisper of it I add to martinis.

🍸 1 1/2 oz Dry vermouth
🍸 1 oz Gin
🍸 1/4 oz Grenadine (or maraschino cherry juice, which we used)
🍸 1/4 oz Fresh lemon juice
🍸 Bitter lemon soda

That’s a rather full report of last week’s cocktails! Stay tuned for more (as it seems the lockdown will go on a lot longer).

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Book Review: Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

On Earth We're Briefly GorgeousOn Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was stunned by this book. Immediately, on entering it, it’s clear that the story will be unconventional. A letter to a mother. An autobiography? A poem? The shifts in time and scenes were disorienting, but in a way that I didn’t mind, sort of like getting used to turbulence on a flight.

I’ve read many immigrant stories in my time and stories from a multicultural and Asian North America (which is where I’m from, hence the interest). And then I’ve read a lot of gay fiction (being gay and a gay writer). To combine those two strands of storytelling, and set in the context of a decaying, poor America amidst the opioid epidemic – I was delighted by this original setting.

And I thought his language was really, really beautiful. While Dwight Garner, in his review in the New York Times, found parts of the writing ‘showy’, ‘affected’ and ‘swollen quasi-profundities’ with the effect like pebbles in your shoe, I didn’t mind it, or in fact quite liked it.

I don’t particularly like writing that is too ornate but I don’t mind showy, for example, a favourite book is Michael Ondaatje’s ‘In The Skin of the Lion’, which I didn’t know how showy it was until a friend complained about it (she preferred the subtler and more popular ‘The English Patient’).

But I didn’t really think of it as showy. I found it striking instead, that I often had trouble following a train of thought, or an image, that the lines were reaching for meaning in a way that I didn’t quite understand. But rather than being bothered by it, I could see that Vuong has a different way of looking at the world, and a way that I think is marvelous: filled with beauty among much pain, full of feeling but not sentimental.

‘I considered the stars, the smattering of blue-white phosphorescence and wondered how anyone could call the night dark.’

While the primary relationship in the book purports to be between the narrator, Little Dog, and his mother, I didn’t have a sense of who she was, aside from traumatised and hard-working and poor and pretty crazy. I preferred reading about the narrator’s first love and first lover. It captured the pain and excitement, nervousness and tenderness of a same-sex first love like few others I’ve read. And since first lovers become former lovers, that description of separation, loss and grief is beautifully wrought.

Since I’ve only read three books this year, it doesn’t say much that this is the best book I’ve read this year. Let me just say I think this book is gorgeous, and for longer than a brief moment. Highly recommended.

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Home baking: Josey Baker’s Adventure Bread

Baking during the COVID-19 lockdown 🍞 I made this recipe for ‘Adventure Bread’ from @JoseyBakerBread posted by @DavidLebovitz, Paris-based author and chef (check out his new book, Drinking French, it’s great).

It’s this amazing gluten-free bread made mostly of nuts, seeds and oats 🍞 It reminded me a bit of the heavy German or Scandinavian bread you can sometimes find at Aldi, in a heavy square loaf, sliced very thinly.

And I’ve always loved bread with lots of nuts and seeds. So, this is really, really tasty and not difficult to make at all 🍞🍞🍞 And I feel pretty smug that I made it myself.

We actually had most of the ingredients: psyllium husk, oats and chia seeds. I had to get some more sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds, and find some flax seeds too. You mix everything together with some liquid, put it overnight into the fridge and then bake it for a long time the next day.

It’s dense and has great texture. Tastes great smothered in butter. The only thing is that in the Australian heat, mold started to get to it after a few days (it’s so heavy, we were just treating ourselves to a piece or two each a day), so best stored in the fridge (or in the freezer as we’re doing).

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Book Review: David Sedaris’s When You are Engulfed in Flames

When You Are Engulfed in FlamesWhen You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve enjoyed Sedaris’s writing in the past, and possibly even more so, hearing him speak at a writer’s festival. He’s funny. Occasionally, he produces a gem of a sentence that is sad, cynical and hilarious, all at once. If I had a better memory, I’d quote him at dinner parties, like people do of Oscar Wilde.

This book was passed onto me (as I will pass it on to a friend who has been giving up smoking, as Sedaris is doing in the last and longest essay in the book) and I noted that it is from 2008.

While Sedaris’s humour always involves some self-deprecation and observation about how strange and absurd the world is, what struck me is that I wonder if his humour (or that of 2008) is going slightly out of date. He often mocks other people and their physical appearance in a way that feels not challenging or outrageous, but just sort of mean. It’s possibly forgiveable since he often makes fun of himself, but it generally gave me the feeling that at this particular point of our history, it’s not funny anymore to make fun of other people.

The other issue is that while I found his recounting of stories from his younger years sharper and funnier, and more full of memorable, absurd detail, I found other stories to be fairly mundane and anecdotal. The final chapter, giving up smoking while in Japan, didn’t grab me: perhaps I’ve read too many ‘Westerners find Japanese culture strange’ stories or had too many friends who gave up smoking.

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Sydney Food Diary: Kobe Wagyu BBQ, Chinatown

I’m glad to see on Zomato how highly diners have rated Kobe Wagyu, up on the first floor across from World Square, at the edge of Chinatown. For that was my feeling too: this was great food and a great dining experience.

And it was a bit of a historical meal for us too, as it was the last place we went to before restaurants got shut down (except for takeaway service) because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, if humanity is doomed, it was great to have this as our last restaurant meal.

Head up the stairs and be impressed by the fridge full of wagyu beef. In fact, I was at a Japanese restaurant in the same location maybe … ten years ago?

Anyways, here at Kobe Wagyu BBQ, It’s a fun and easy concept. For $84, you get a beautiful deluxe plate of sashimi …

You can also get free beer (one bottle each), free oysters (one each) …

… and then order small side dishes to your heart’s content (more on that below).

And you get a staircase of meat. I wasn’t careful enough to try to write down the different cuts and names of the beef (though having access to the menu might have helped) but there was an amazing variation …

… in how much fat there was, how thin or thick the slice was, and then the different texture and mouth-feel with each bite. It was really amazing, and you can tell this is high-quality, expensive meat.

And with a biteful of each type, you can really savour and appreciate them. I think there was only one out of the eight varieties that I thought was average. Mostly, we looked at each other after tasting a piece and said: OHMYGOD.

The setting is fun and comfortable. Perhaps a little too bright. But the booths are comfortable and they were spaced so that everyone was sitting a comfortable distance apart (all the staff were wearing masks, there was hand sanitizer at the entrance when you came in. It was clear they were doing everything they could to make it a safe and comfortable experience).

And the ordering pad is fun. Easy to understand and the orders come in minutes!

We ordered quite a few little plates: a cold tofu, takoyaki (octopus balls), crab claws (which tastes surprisingly of crab rather than the artificial seafood filler I expected) …

… a seaweed salad, asparagus, and burdock fries (chewy and interesting). We even had a frozen matcha tiramisu for dessert, which was fine. Nothing special but I like the concept.

All in all a wonderful evening and I would definitely go back. And I hope in these tough times for restaurant that Kobe Wagyu, and all of the other wonderful restaurants in Sydney, will also be back to normal business as soon as we can all be safe.

Kobe Wagyu Yakiniku Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Home Cooking: Alison Roman’s Spiced Chickpea Stew with Coconut and Turmeric

The COVID-19 lockdown is a perfect opportunity to try out all the recipes that I’ve been printing out and then putting to one side! I have quite a collection.

Some have already proven to be failures (for me, at least). I was so concerned that the ribs wouldn’t be cooked long enough in Roy Choi’s Braised Short-Rib Stew (which weirdly, as of March 2020, isn’t behind it’s usual NYT pay firewall), that while I managed to cook the ribs a long time (and they were delicious), I absent-mindedly chucked in the rest of the ingredients way too early.

So, the expensive and somewhat hard to find ingredients (roasted chestnuts, taro, fresh shitake mushrooms) melted down with the pumpkin into a thick gravy and it wasn’t a success.

In contrast, Alison Roman’s Spiced Chickpea Stew with Coconut and Turmeric would have to be my biggest success of the lockdown so far (photo at the top of the post). A columnist for the New York Times and Bon Appétit, she’s a cook and cookbook writer and you can visit her here. Her recipe is up on the New York Times website (and is behind the paywall) but it’s been reproduced in different places on the web, for example, here in the Irish Times, that calls it the chickpea stew that broke the internet.

The spices aren’t complicated (turmeric, ginger, garlic and onions) and neither are the ingredients, but matched with two cans of coconut milk (which are in short supply in Sydney at the moment, I think because of panic buying), and the chickpeas and chard, this stew was magical.

I was especially pleased with rehydrating the dried chickpeas myself in the pressure cooker (and then used the chickpea water with a few stock cubes instead of the water and stock called for in the recipe). Frying the chickpeas until they have a lovely crunchy texture on the outside is magic (I’ve also done this for a chickpea pasta recipe which was great).

I think this might have been the first time ever that I cooked with silverbeet (In Australia, they call the one with white stalks silverbeet and the ones with red stalks Swiss Chard, though I believe in North America, it’s all chard). I loved the substantial texture and weight of the leaves.

Since I hate waste, I looked up a recipe for how to use the stalks and made an Italian-style silverbeet stalks dish. We’d run out of parmesan though, which I think made a difference. Even with the garlic, capers and rich tomato sauce, we both found the dish a bit bland, and serving it as a separate course rather than a side dish emphasised this (even though the handful of macaroni I threw in was good for textural contrast).

It was a bit better, the next day, served alongside ANOTHER recipe I’d wanted to try, pressure cooker aloo masala (Indian curry potatoes), which I won’t bother posting a link too since the ideas were cobbled together from a few different recipes. The potatoes were OK but not fab; I’ll stick with something like the Washington Post’s Divorce Potato Roasties instead. And sadly, will probably toss the silverbeet stalks the next time I make the chickpea stew!

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2020 in lists: concerts & shows, theatre, books, movies, TV

(A work in progress…)

Concerts, Shows, Theatre, Exhibitions & Words

  • Dodecalis Luminarium. This art installation apparently took six months to make. It really is beautiful and I love how it engages people (especially kids). By the Architects of Air, this was part of the Sydney Festival.
  • The Life of Us, Hayes Theatre. A homegrown Australian musical, where the two young leads were the writers and are partners (in a musical about the trials of a long-distance relationship). Such great talent. Amazing songwriting. I think the book might need a little adjustment if it’s going to make it to bigger stages, but we were really impressed.
  • Conchita Wurst & Trevor Ashley in Concert, for Mardi Gras 2020. A rainbow sparkly evening with not two but three amazing performers (Kate Miller-Heidke was a guest).

Books

  • André Aciman’s Find Me (fiction). Boy did I hate this book. Here’s my review.
  • David Sedaris’s When You Are Engulfed in Flames (humour). Here’s my review.
  • Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (novel). Here’s my review.
  • Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (a ‘pictorial work’). Here’s my review.

Movies

  • Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Enjoyable enough and hit the mark, I thought. I would have liked to see Rose get more screentime. I enjoyed seeing Carrie Fisher. I got mixed up and expected to see Baby Yoda in this film.
  • Joker: Joaquin Phoenix is so intriguing and compelling, I was really drawn into the film, even though the main plot seemed to be ‘How did the Joker become who he is?’, basically a set-up for the Batman myth. So, not much of a movie in the end, but a performance. Interesting to read the reviews: critics seemed to hate this (or at least the hype or huge praise it got). 
  • Frozen II: How could I be bored during the world’s highest grossing animated film? I guess I’m not the target audience (though I liked Frozen).
  • The Marriage Story: Meh. I think I read too much of the hype and was distracted by it. I thought it was fine, but didn’t love it.
  • The Irishman: Uh oh. Again, the critics have been raving about this. I think the acting is magnificent but in one of the longest films I’ve seen in recent memory, the storytelling wasn’t exactly tight, and the dramatic hooks took a long time to come.
  • Judy: I quite liked this one. Amazing performance by Zellweger and I liked the story enough: a look behind the legend.
  • Jojo Rabbit: Whoah. I don’t even know what to think of this one. A superb performance by the lead and the director playing Adolf Hitler was hilarious and charismatic. But I’m still kind of taking it in.

Television

  • Flirty Dancing UK, Season 2. We were utterly charmed by this show, that seemed to be sincere about trying to match up couples and set them up for a first date where they dance together, a routine they’ve practised all week with trainers. They don’t even know each other’s names. It’s sweet and romantic.
  • Queer Eye, Season 3. For some reason, this season didn’t grab me as much. Was it that there were no standout heroes? Or am I getting bored of the boys? It’s still good TV but we weren’t as into it this time around.
  • Queer Eye in Japan. Wow, was this weird. I do enjoy the show in general, but there were so many moments that I cringed at, well-meaning Westerners walking into another culture and giving advice that probably is inappropriate. Here’s a really interesting commentary on the show.
  • Project Runway, Season 18. I am loving that this show is back with its original production team. The focus is on talent and skills and that is here in abundance. Of course there was drama, inevitably, but it doesn’t feel manufactured as in some previous seasons. Christian Siriano has really hit his stride, and I like Karlie Kloss and the judges too. Happy with the decision on who won!
  • The Good Place, Season 4. I really did love this show. I thought it was so funny and witty. I fell in love with the characters. I loved that it offered wit and intelligence as well as a lot of silliness. The finale was lovely.
  • Don’t F#ck With Cats: Netflix is making crazy documentaries these days, and this was so compelling, engaging and disturbing. I couldn’t look away.
  • Next in Fashion: We’re huge fans of Project Runway so wanted to watch its competitor. There were drawbacks: like the Chef’s Table competition, pairing randoms together and eliminating these teams of two seems unfair and brutal. Yet the quality of talent was so much higher that it was great to watch, and the focus was all on the talent and skills, rather than interpersonal drama (though the current Project Runway is doing a good job of this as well). With a truly international cast, it felt a whole step up from Project Runway in terms of diversity. On Project Runway, German blonde supermodel host Heidi Klum has been replaced by American blonde model host Karlie Kloss. Here, South Asian Tan France and part-Chinese Alexa Chung are refreshingly short and non-blonde. All in all, we loved it. Good television!
  • Australian Survivor All Stars (Season 5): So much Survivor. So much TV. So much time in my life that I’ll never get back. And really, half the cast aren’t really ‘All Stars’. They didn’t make it far in their own seasons or were very good at the game. It’s just that viewers seemed to like them. But I can’t stop watching. In the end, I was happy enough with the winner (though would have preferred Moana to win).
  • Survivor Season 40: Winners at War: Bringing back winners from 20 seasons. OMG. Am loving this season. Every player is interesting and knows how to play. I don’t love the Extinction Island thing. But it’s a great theme for one of our favourite shows.
  • Crashing: OK. Who’s watched Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s predecessor to Fleabag? I loved Fleabag so it was fascinating to see a first draft. Instead of the uptight contrasting character to Fleabag being her sister, in this case, it’s Phoebe’s childhood best friend’s (and unrequited love) fiance. Waller-Bridge’s character is wild and shocking and sexual. But what doesn’t work is that, unlike Fleabag, where there’s a rationale for the protagonist’s coldness, fucked-up-edness and wild behaviour, here, there is none. It’s pure id. Scenes often end in a mass fight verging on an orgy involving liquid (food, wine, paint, bodily fluids). They often go too far, because the sake of it seems to be to go too far. Now, it was watchable and has some great bits, but all in all, is a promise of what’s to come.
  • El Camino: Six years since Breaking Bad. I remember being obsessed with it, captivated by it, and yet I’m surprised now how much I’d forgotten. I read a catch-up summary online and here we were: ready to watch El Camino, which basically tells us what happened to Jesse Pinkman after the final episode. As before, the filming, the angles, the storytelling: all top-notch and the characters were always uniformly fascinating. So, I’m glad they made it! And I’m glad we watched it.
  • Tiger King: Like it seems everyone else in lockdown, I watched this. Oh my god, this was good TV.

Posted in Australia, Book, Books, Concert, Exhibition, Film, Music, Review, Sydney, Theatre/Concert Review, Theatre/Show | Leave a comment

Sydney Food Diary: Ho Jiak Town Hall

We had a chore in the CBD which meant it was a perfect occasion to try out Ho Jiak Town Hall during their soft launch. It’s funny to see the former Cuban restaurant transformed into a modern Malaysian hangout. It’s a big space, and beautifully designed. Good lighting and lots of witty design, like above.

Ho Jiak is one of my favourite restaurants. I love the way Junda and his team take humble and homestyle Asian food, and elevate it in some way, usually with luxurious ingredients but sometimes just with a perfect cooking technique. But I also am a huge fan of Junda’s personal approach. He states on his menus right upfront: he is cooking to honour his grandmother and his food is about love and affection and heart. I mean, it’s damn tasty too, but you just don’t get the feeling that he’s going to turn into one of the many celebrity chefs in Australia who are underpaying their staff!

We considered only ordering one noodle dish between the two of us (plus an appetizer) but the waitress didn’t hesitate in saying that we should order two dishes. We reckon she noted that clearly Asians have extra stomachs for eating, and I do. Though splitting the Sang Har Mee, marron in egg sauce on crispy noodles, would have been just fine.

But first the starter: Loh Bak. Five-spiced pork roll in bean curd skin and deep fried. I’ve had a similar dish. For yum cha, they have a minced meat and vegetables version, wrapped in bean curd skin and steamed in a savoury gravy. It’s a favourite. So, this was a shockingly good surprise, to have the mixture replaced with pure porky delight (layers of juicy fat), and have the deep-fried crispness. It’s crazy how good it was. $18.

I decided to try the curry chicken Nasi Lemak (also $18), as I usually stick to the same dishes (my favourites: steamed eggs, and anything coated with salted duck egg). This classic Malaysian rice dish was perfect in its combination of textures, and delicious tender chicken curry. I’m glad we tried it.

The main course, the aforementioned marron, to tell the truth, we liked but didn’t love. Though I loved the presentation. For $48, it’s a treat, and the marron had a great texture but not much flavour. And then this style of noodles, so soupy and wet (even though the noodles are crispy) is so different than what I’m used to from Cantonese styles (much less wet).

But really, all this tells me is that I’ll probably go back to my favourite dishes next time. I’m not sure why I’d come here rather than the location in Chinatown, unless I had to be in the CBD for some reason, but the more Ho Jiaks the merrier, really. Give this new location a try, I recommend, particularly at this crazy period of time with COVID-19, where restaurants are really having a hard go of surviving.

Ho Jiak Town Hall 好吃禧市 Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sydney Food Diary: Sea Salt, Clovelly

It’s pretty hard to go wrong in a location like this, a classic Sydney location, where you have views of the water, of some kind, from nearly anywhere in the restaurant.

What a lucky guy I was. My friend John picked me up from Surry Hills, drove us to Clovelly and treated me to a meal at this lovely cafe, where I’d previously only had takeaway coffee from.

We both were drawn to have different types of risotto. Mine was served with salmon with a perfectly crisp skin. A special of the day.

His came with pumpkin and mushrooms (I think on the menu it is the  ‘Pumpkin Pea Risotto’. Oh, and I had a sneaky glass of wine too. A lovely lunch at a lovely cafe, and nothing more to say than that!

Sea Salt Clovelly Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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