Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Ultimate Flying Machine

A Singapore Airlines 747-400 at Heathrow. On Singapore Airlines, the First Class passengers are in the front of the plane downstairs, and the top is used for Business Class.

Lufthansa puts its First Class cabins on the upper deck, and the front seats downstairs are for Business Class.

This is Lufthansa's First Class cabin on the Airbus 340, which I took from Munich to Washington. The strange looking metal boxes open up to accommodate the seat backs when they are converted into beds.

I recently had occasion to fly long haul in first class on two airlines that are considered among the world's best:
Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines.

Both experiences were magnificent, and there was very little to complain about with either airline, but, to my surprise, the marginally better experience was Lufthansa. I will put details on the food and wine in a later posting, but, here is how I rate the experience in the following categories:

Food -- Lufthansa

The clear winner is Lufthansa. On Singapore Airlines, my main course was Lobster Thermidor; on Lufthansa I had goose. The goose was succulent, tasty, and something different. On the other hand, the sauce around the Lobster Thermidor on Singapore was a little bland, and there really was not much meat in the tail at all. A very disappointing offering!

Both airlines offered a great salad. But on Singapore, we were given a bottle of excellent virgin olive oil that I found much nicer than the prepared potato dressing on Lufthansa.

Both airlines offered caviar as one of the appetizers before the main course.

The dessert on Lufthansa was a Passion Fruit Consomme with Buttermilk Mousse. Wonderful!

Champagne -- Singapore

Nobody does better than Singapore Airlines. There is no better music than "Would you like the
Krug or the Dom Perignon?" Lufthansa served a Cuvee Rare from Charles Heidsieck. Good, but I much preferred the Krug.

Wine -- Tie

This is difficult, and I think I would rate them equally. Singapore Airlines provided me with a 1998 Cos d’Estournel, which I enjoyed immensely. On the other hand, The William Wine (2000) from Graham Beck in South Africa was something different, and it was delicious although it is a much cheaper wine.

Lufthansa also offered an interesting dessert wine, Silvaner Eiswein, Weingut Guntrum, Nierstein 2004, which is described here. It is really nice to have a dessert wine that is an alternative to Port, the only dessert wine offering on Singapore Airlines. I award my "prize" to Lufthansa largely because I loved this wine so much.

Lounges -- Singapore

Singapore Airlines’ First Class passengers get to use Virgin’s Clubhouse at JFK, which is one of the best lounges I have ever been to. I have described the lounge and put up pictures here. I used Lufthansa’s lounges at Heathrow, Frankfurt, and Munich, and I really don’t like them very much. I understand that Lufthansa has upgraded the on-ground experience for its first class passengers at Frankfurt, and Munich will follow. This is a badly needed upgrade!

Singapore Airlines disappoints in one respect. After a transatlantic flight, it is nice to be able to have a shower and use a good lounge. British Airways has an arrival lounge at Heathrow that I think is a gold standard. Singapore seemed to offer nothing to arriving First Class passengers in Frankfurt. Finally, I was able to get into Lufthansa's Business Class lounge, but only because of my Premier Executive status with Star Alliance, but I had to wait almost an hour to get a shower.

Sleeper Suits -- Singapore

It is pretty much standard practice to give first class passengers sleeper suits on long haul flights. Singapore's came from Givenchy in a very useful bag. It was 100% cotton and very comfortable. For some reason, on Lufthansa gives you only a shirt. It was nice, but somehow incomplete.

Seats -- Lufthansa

The seats look wonderful on Singapore airlines, but I actually found the Lufthansa seat to be a bit more comfortable.

In-Flight Entertainment Systems -- Unknown!

There was so much to do on the plane! Eating, drinking, and sleeping took up most of the time. I also used the excellent
Connexion system to check my e-mail. So I did not switch on the entertainment system on either flight. (Both airlines had in-seat power for my laptop.)

Both airlines have extremely attentive flight attendants, who seem to anticipate every need! I would love to fly Cathay Pacific in First Class! it is said to be wonderful, and I wonder whether that is the best First Class product that money can buy.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Iron Bridge Wine Company

The Iron Bridge Wine Company
10435 State Route 108
Columbia, Maryland 21044

410-997-3456 Phone
410-997-3807 Fax

For a Google map, click here.

I have also written a more recent review here.

Columbia, Maryland, is not the best place for restaurants. There are too many chains. I was so excited when the Iron Bridge Wine Company opened a couple of years ago. The only problem with it is that it is so popular that it often really difficult to get a table. (If this account sounds a little too enthusiastic, please know that I am not connected with this place in any way.) They don't take reservations.

One of the best things about this place is that they sell wonderful wine. Many places sell good wine, but how many seek out interesting undiscovered wines? South African Chenin Blanc, for example. Modern Greek wines. Well priced wines from Spain. They sell many of the high priced, popular wines too, but whenever I go to the Iron Bridge, I feel I am going to learn something new and discover a new wine. Best of all, they put a bottle on your table for just $5.00 above retail -- I love that! They also have a variety of "wines of the month" at around $10.

The next best thing is that they have a short menu. They do a few things well. Tonight I had a Venison and Foie Gras Pate, which came with a nice little salad with walnuts and balsamic vinegar. The main course was rack of lamb ($16), which I ordered rare. I could not stop chewing away at those bones! It came in a delicious Hollandaise/Beaujolais sauce.

Dessert was a pumpkin panacotta. Very rich and delicately spiced with cinnamon and vanilla and a silky texture.

My only caveat about this place is that you need to get there early because it fills up. It just shows what happens when someone decides to offer excellent food and wine at a reasonable price -- none of the main courses cost more than $16! I also find their lunch a little disappointing -- the menu is mostly sandwiches, which is OK when you are working, but sometimes you feel like a "real meal."

For readers, looking for other reviews, notice that Iron Bridge is written as two words. Many people searching for this restaurant seem to write "Ironbridge." I have also noticed that a lot of people are searching for the "Ironbridge Winery." The Iron Bridge Wine Company does not make wine -- it is just a wine bar, restaurant, and an outstanding retailer of wine.

Embassy Suites -- New York City

On a recent visit to New York, we stayed in the Embassy Suites hotel in the financial district of New York.

All four of us were traveling together and it was nice to have the extra space that Embassy Suites gives you. The standard suite at this chain of hotels, which is part of the Hilton group, is a bedroom and an adjoining living room. The bedroom is like a standard full service hotel room with a televion, and the living room has a sofa, a table, a microwave, and another television. The sofa can be turned into a bed for the night, and they provide plenty of pillows, sheets, and blankets to make it comfortable. Unfortunately, this hotel has no swimming pool.

Our rate was $209 per night, and that includes a full breakfast and a cocktail hour. Parking was $50 per night.

The beds were great, and it was nice to have a good duvet instead of blankets. I loved the soap, conditioner, and shampoo from Bath and Bodyworks in the bathroom.

There are some rough spots at Embassy Suites (plastic glasses for the cocktails, for example), but I think that it was a very good deal at a busy time of year. The hotel was absolutely full of tourists. The breakfast and the cocktail hour were very crowded, and it took some time to get our breakfast and drinks.

Recommended especially for families of four!

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Getting to New York from Baltimore

Sometimes we like to spend a couple of days in New York, but when all four of us in the family go, it can be expensive. We have tried various ways of containing the cost, including staying in hotels in New Jersey, but it is so nice to have a night or two in Manhattan.

In 2004, we went to New York on the day after Thanksgiving. This time we took a bus from a company called Dragon. Everything worked out really well. The cost was only $35.00 per person. We decided to repeat this and spend two nights during the holidays this year. We had a lot of fun, but the bus experience was a disaster!

We found that the Dragon bus was full, but there were seats on a bus run by a company called Eastern. I bought the tickets on line, and I printed them out. We arrived in good time, and the bus was there, but it was absolutely full. After a lot of arguing, the driver gave me $80 back. Then we went and bought tickets from Greyhound. The bus showed up about half an hour late, and it was also full.

At this stage we gave up, and went to New York in the car. I am not going to try the bus again!

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Thursday, December 29, 2005

Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse -- JFK

Imagine you had to spend a whole day at an airport. Where would you least like to be? If you had asked me a week ago, I think I might have said New York's John F Kennedy (JFK). My recent experience was completely different.

I went to London via a rather interesting route. On the first day I took a flight from Dulles Airport (IAD) to JFK, where I arrived at about noon. My next flight was on Singapore Airlines to Frankfurt at 9:30 (FRA). My third flight left JFK at about nine in the evening and arrived in Frankfurt the next morning at about 10:30. The last flight was on Lufthansa from FRA to London (LHR). My return journey was from LHR to Munich (MUC) on Lufthansa, and then I flew back from MUC to IAD. The whole experience allowed me to try five airline lounges, three airlines, and five different planes.

My experience at the Virgin Lounge in New York was so incredibly pleasant that I thought it was worth a posting. When I go to the lounges in the United States, I find I am underwhelmed. I go to United's Red Carpet Clubs quite often because they allow people with Gold Status (Premier Executives) to go if you are traveling internationally, but quite honestly they don't offer a lot.

Here are a few pictures of the Virgin Clubhouse at JFK:

At the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse the staff are wonderful -- they are so friendly and go out of their way to make sure that you have a good time.

Getting work done is easy at the Clubhouse. They have wireless connections to the Internet for customers with their own laptops, and they also have a a Macs, printers, and a fax machine for people who want to work.

The nicest thing is the way they organize food. Some of the best lounges that I have ever been to put out extensive buffets, but in my opinion, it is so much nicer to sit down and have a restaurant style meal. I really like the way there was a menu on the table, and everything was presented beautifully. I ordered the crab quesadillas. The champagne was Mosaique from Jacquart.

For dessert, I had an assortment of cheese and crackers with a glass of port.

I will put more pictures of the lounge up in another posting. Comments are invited -- what is the best airport lounge you have ever been in?

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Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse Pictures -- JFK

This is a follow up to a previous posting on the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at JFK. This is really one of the best club lounges in the world! Other contenders include the Emirates First Class lounge in Dubai, Singapore Airlines in Singapore. I also love the arrival lounges offered to BA passengers at Heathrow. This is certainly the best Business Class lounge that I know of.

There are excellent shower facilities!

There are quite a few choices about how you can spend your time while waiting for your flight.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Les Halles, Downtown, New York

One of the best gifts I received for Christmas was one of Anthony Bourdain's books. I have already read Kitchen Confidential, and I am really enjoying Bourdain's other book.

So, I was very pleased that our dear friend, Dr. C, invited all four of us to Les Halles (downtown) when we went up to New York. As some readers may know, Bourdain was chef at the now famous chain of Les Halles restaurants.

First impressions are good. The decor really does look like a real French brasserie -- lots of wood, marble-topped surfaces, and a bar wih beer taps. Like waiters in France, the people who serve at the tables look as though they know how to cook and sport immaculate white aprons that prove that they don't.

The menu is pretty short -- the food is on the front, and the wine is on the back. (I approve of short menus!) The food is pretty much standard brasserie fare -- steak frites, confit de canard, vol au vent, coq au vin, and so on.

I started with pan-seared foie gras ($12.50) with caramelised apples. It was excellent except that the toast on which it sat had lost all of its crispiness and was soggy. Then, I had the onglet (hanger steak) with the frites ($17.50). The steak was great, and the fries really are memorable. Les Halles is famous for its frites. Fried in peanut oil, they really are something special -- crispy on the outside, but you can taste that it is a real potato as you bite into the middle. Dessert was profiteroles ($6.00) -- I found the sauce floury and the choux pastry almost rubbery. They were not all that good. The better choice was probably Dr. C's choice, the creme brulee, which was pronounced outstanding.

Other dishes include hamburgers ($12.50), Confit de Canard with truffle sauteed potatoes ($14.50), steak tartare with frites ($14.00), and a good selection of moules frites ($14.50) with a variety of sauces.

Dr. C had the Coq au vin, and pronounced it excellent. Iran had the french onion soup ($5.50), which looked passable.

There is a good and short wine list with a nice showing of Bordeaux reds (my first love). We had a Chateau Meyney (1997) -- an off year but an excellent wine. I was just a little bit disappointed with it. It was very good, but did not compare with the infinitely better 1995 that we drank two days earlier.

In summary, it was a good meal -- I would recommend it if you are staying in the area, but I would not go out of my way for this restaurant.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Washing glasses between wines

There is one thing I have stopped doing. If I am drinking one red wine followed by another red wine, I will not rinse the glass with water before pouring out the next wine. It simply does not make sense to me.

If there is a residual taste of something else, I prefer it to be another red wine rather than tasting traces of chlorinated water.

The best option, of course, is to use another glass!

(A nice glass is important. I love Riedel glasses, and I will review some of them in a future posting.)

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See, smell, sip, swirl, swallow (or spit), summarize

A recent article in the Wine Spectator provided useful tips about how to taste wine. It pointed to four or five "S" words that you need to go through to appreciate a wine. I think I have actually lost that edition, but the point is a very good one. I liked the principle, and I have reconstructed the thought here.

  • SEE Take a good look at the wine. How does the color compare to other wines? Darker or lighter? Is it clear or cloudy? Look at it in the glass. Does it seem visous and drip down the glass like oil? Or does it have a watery movement against the glass. Hold the wine up to a light to get a better look.
  • SMELL Take the time to sniff. Is it a nice smell? Nothing rotten? What does the smell remind you of? (Talk about it to your wine drinking companion.)
  • SIP Tast the wine slowly. What is your first impression? What flavors does it remind you of? Have you tasted something like this before?
  • SWIRL Make the wine touch every part of your tongue? Different parts of the tongue register different flavors.
  • SWALLOW (or SPIT) Then what happens? Does the flavor linger? What is the after-taste like? Pleasant? Or do you detect something nasty?
  • SUMMARIZE Put your impressions into words. Don't worry about sounding silly. This is very tough to do -- I suspect language was around before wine was, and language simply is not a very efficient tool to talk about wine, but it is all we have!
Those are actually six "S" words. Since I have taken the time to go through each of these steps pretty systematically, I think my enjoyment of wine has increased. I suspect that people don't enjoy wine as much as they might simply because they don't take the time to focus on what they are drinking.
Try this and see if it makes a difference. It works for me!

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

James Estate Shiraz, 2000

This wine is recommended. I paid about $8.00 for it at the Iron Bridge Wine Company in Maryland.

Deep red to look at, it is very plummy, dark berry-like in flavor. It borders on the Christmas pudding type of wine, but it is a wonderfully rich wine to have in winter weather. There are some oak/vanilla overtones. Delicious but certainly not subtle or elegant. Very good value for the money.

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Monday, December 19, 2005

Two Tone Farm Cabernet Sauvignon, 2002

You expect to pay a lot for Napa Cabernet, but this wine is a real bargain. It is from Napa, it is Cabernet, it is delicious and it is cheap.

Two Tone Farm Cabernet Sauvignon comes in a nicely designed bottle complete with a screw top (which I like). The wine is dark red and looks brilliant when you hold it up to the light. It has classic Cabernet blackcurrant tastes with some minty overtones. You can distinctly taste the tannins, and there is some smokiness to the flavor too. A wonderful balance of fresh forward fruit with amazing complexity for such a low priced wine. Very nice long finish. A wonderful bargain for only $9.00 a bottle.

This is so good that I bought a case immediately after tasting it. Very highly recommended. (I have heard that it comes from Beringer, but have not chased down its origins.

For people in Maryland, I bought this wine at my beloved Iron Bridge Wine Company, where I got a 20% discount for buying it by the case so I wound up paying only $7.20 a bottle.

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American Wine in England

I have recently come back from a short trip to England, and I am not surprised that even knowledgeable English wine lovers do not really have a very favorable impression of American wine. Most of the American wine that finds its way on to English supermarket shelves seems to be cheap mass produced stuff. For example, the national supermarket chain, Tesco, which is a splendid place to buy wine, sells Blossom Hill, Corbett Canyon, Mondavi Woodbridge, but nothing I would cross the street for except possibly the Ravenswood Zinfandel!

There are specialty wine shops like Berry Brothers and Rudd that sell the good stuff, but it seems such a shame that the English seem to enjoy few opportunities to get their hands on the best American wine.

For example, Berry's sells Ridge Lytton Springs (2003) for 19.15 pounds, and the Monte Bello (2000) for 85.11.

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Friday, December 16, 2005

Wine Temperature

I confess to spending too much of my life drinking red wine too warm and white wine too cold. (I remember my parents putting red wine close to the radiator to make sure it was at room temperature!)

Some wine lovers get very precise about this, and, obviously rules about red wine and white wine are gross overgeneralizations. A white Burgundy, for example, is best enjoyed at higher temperature than a Portuguese Vinho Verde. Or a fine Bordeaux should be warmer than a Beaujolais.

But generally speaking the wine writer -- I think it was Jancis Robinson -- who suggested putting reds in the refrigerator a few minutes before opening and removing whites from the refrigerator a few minutes before drinking did me a big favor.

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Thursday, December 15, 2005

Château La Roque Coteaux du Languedoc Pic St.-Loup Cupa Numismae 2001

I bought a case of this wine for less than $20 a bottle when it was first released. I had a bottle tonight with Iran. When I first had this wine, I liked it, but I wondered a little bit what the fuss was all about.

But tonight it was absolutely marvelous. When I pulled it from the cellar, I found it was just a little colder than usual. The weather! The wine is a blend of Syrah and Mourvedre. It still has a delicious wild berry taste -- it is very, very fruity. (That does not mean sweet!) There is also some dense and interesting complexity -- leather, vanilla. The tannins have softened, and it slips down the thoat so easily. The vanilla and the raspberry flavors almost make you think of raspberries and cream. (Alcohol is 13.5%)

It might be tough to find the 2001 now, but I will certainly seek out other years of this wine. It is a very refined wine at a low price.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Silvaner Eiswein, Weingut Guntrum, Nierstein 2004

I love dessert wines, and I really enjoy good ice wine.

Most of the ice wines I have had have been from Canada, but, on a recent flight from Munich to Washington, I had the opportunity to try this truly remarkable Eiswein from Germany from Louis Guntrum, a winery on the banks of the Rhine that has been in the same family since 1648.

In Germany, the law requires ice wine to be made from grapes that are picked when the temperature is below -7 degrees centigrade, and they have to be pressed while the grapes are still frozen. This contrasts with other "ice wines" that can be artificially frozen after picking. The point of making wine from frozen grapes is to achieve concentration and sweetness. Basically, the water in the grapes freezes, but the sugars and other solids don't so they can be easily separated.

This wine is remarkably complex. There is wonderful balance between sweetness and acidity, and a very nice nutty flavor (hazlenuts?).

I have not discovered where I can find this wine in the United States, and I have no clue what it costs, and I would appreciate comments from anyone who knows. When I looked at their website, they seem to make all sorts of wines from grapes not often associated with Germany -- I would love to try more!

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Montana Sauvignon Blanc, 2004

I really am becoming very fond of these New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. On a recent trip to London, I tried the Sauvignon Blanc from Montana. It cost about ₤7.00, and it was just another delicious wine. It had a nice fresh taste, lots of tropical fruit, and the familiar gooseberry taste. I have not seen it in the United States, but I know you can get at Oddbins in the UK. Very highly recommended.

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Saturday, December 10, 2005

British Airways Disaster?

This picture taken by Mr. B looks like a near miss. Actually, it was a British Airways Boeing 747-400 at about 2:00 pm on a perfectly normal approach into London Heathrow (LHR) viewed from Richmond Green.

Who says cameras never lie?

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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Affordable Wine

Many of my posts are about affordable wine, and affordable means something a little different to everyone. This is what I mean by affordable.

I try to make sure I have some wine on hand for drinking every day, and I try to keep those bottles under $10. On the weekends, I tend to drink something a little bit more special, and my price limit creeps up to about $20. Then there are wines for very special occasions, and I will go up to $30.

If anyone is trying to build up a cellar, the most important tip that I can give anyone is to keep a plentiful supply of cheap wine on hand. This stops you from being tempted to use the good stuff when you simply feel like a glass of wine, but you are not in a frame of mind to appreciate a serious bottle.

Funnily enough, and I know this is a little irrational, I simply don't take white wine as seriously as red (except for sweet wines.) I just won't spend as much on a white wine as on a red wine. The most expensive white wine I regularly buy is Conundrum. It's an interesting California wine that is a fascinating blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Muscat Canelli, Sémillon and Viognier. It costs around $24.

I sometimes buy Champagne, but I try to keep the cost down. One of my favorites is Montaudon, and that usually goes for under $30.

I have a fondness for sweet wines, including Sauternes, Vouvray, and Canadian ice wine. I tend to break my price limits with these wine, and buy at the $30 to $40 level, conveniently forgetting that this frequently buys you only a half bottle.

This is from the perspective of someone living on the east cost of the United States. Californians seem to get a lot of wine more cheaply, particularly when it is from California.

I have a few valuable wines. Some of these are presents from generous friends. Others are wines I have seen at amazing prices, and pounced. For example, I managed to get a lot of the 1989 and 1990 Cos d'Estournel for only about $25 a bottle in about 1993.

The most expensive wine that I have ever bought for myself was probably the wonderful ice wine from Henry of Pelham in Niagara. I bought it at the winery, and it cost about $55 (Canadian) -- this works out to about US $80 or so per bottle (considering the rate of exchange at the time and the fact that this is a half bottle.)

What does affordable mean to you? What is the most you have ever spent on a bottle of wine?

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Friday, December 02, 2005

Nobilo, 2005, Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand

The most expensive wine evening I have ever had went something like this. All the guests were challenged to bring the best possible wine to a dinner party, and we would vote on the best wine. There would be a prize for the winner. The rule was that no wine should cost more than $15.

I was determined to win. I think I must have tried at least twenty wines for this party to be sure I was backing a winner. Finally, I decided to bring Nobilo's Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. So that was how I spent about $300 to win a corkscrew! Many of the New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs come with a screw cap making that hard-earned corkscrew unnecessary anyway!

Anyway, some years later I bought the same wine (Nobilo, 2005, Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand), and we drank it last night. How perfect this wine was! The color is pale light straw. Swirling it around the glass brings out the classic Sauvignon Blanc aroma -- freshly mown grass and gooseberries. With the Nobilo, there is also a lot more -- tropical fruits, mango, passion fruit, and pineapple. The other thing is the burnt aroma. It smells of butterscoth and caramel too. This is a wonderfully pleasant wine to drink I highly recommend it!

There are other excellent Sauvignon Blanc wines from New Zealand. Although I feel the best known cult wine, Cloudy Bay, is a bit too expensive, there are other excellent wines at very keen prices. My favorites include Villa Maria and Kim Crawford.

What is your experience with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc? I find that it is wonderful party wine. It is not too expensive, and everybody seems to like it.

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