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High Steaks 

Ryan Duffy's caters to provincial power brokers in its new space downtown. Liz Feltham gives credit to a solid business lunch.

Economic downturn, recession, depression, stocks plummeting, gas prices soaring, housing markets tanking---all grim indicators of what's happening in the world right now. And while I respect all of those things as accurate economic indicators, I prefer to use a barometer closer to my own experience---the business lunch. Besides, it gives me an excuse to check out Ryan Duffy's new downtown digs in the former East Side Mario's.

The new location for this old steakhouse is sharply dressed: a comfortably elegant lounge on the right and a tailored dining room on the left, done in shades of grey and upholstered in pinstripes with red accents.

Filled with power suits (panted and skirted), this particular lunchtime is bustling. There's plenty of money and market talk, the wine is flowing and the steaks are firing. Our server tells us Duffy's hasn't experienced any downturn in business; people need to eat, she says, and continues to theorize that the recreational supper hour is perhaps a better indicator of hard times.

The seafood chowder ($8), garnished with unshelled mussels and crispy bacon, looks promising. Chunks of potato, carrot and celery peep out of the creamy broth. The first spoonful yields a velvety smooth broth, plenty of vegetables and good flavour, but it takes some digging to find any seafood in this deep bowl. Typically, throughout Nova Scotia the moniker "seafood chowder" refers to chowder made with shellfish, while "fish chowder" uses haddock, other whitefish, or sometimes salmon.

In this case, it's a mix, with the chef heavily favouring less expensive finfish. I have three mussels, canned clams, a sizeable chunk of salmon and several pieces of haddock. Not plentiful, but passable for the price. I am leery of mussels in the shell as a garnish, because if they're not well scrubbed there's a risk of grit. I'm near the bottom of the bowl when my teeth crunch disconcertingly. It's a little disappointment, but this chowder has real potential.

The bistro salad ($14) is a whopping bowl full of mesclun greens, topped with a 5oz grilled striploin. The steak is prepared as ordered, sliced and fanned out on the side. Balsamic marinated portobello mushrooms, crumbled stilton cheese and slices of tomato accompany the greens. The menu promises a "creamy balsamic dressing," but this one provides little more than a thrifty amount of oil. The greens could stand a picking through; there are several badly wilted, discoloured leaves. Still, the mushroom and cheese are plentiful, the steak is well-seasoned and while not as tender as tenderloin, this striploin comes close.

The beef tenderloin ($4/oz, 5oz minimum) is the star of our lunch. Dry-aged at Duffy's, this steak is practically fork tender and everything carnivores dream of. The baked potato is fluffy and tastes remarkably fresh:nothing sadder than a reheated baker.

We split a piece of French silk pie ($9) for dessert. A creamy version of a chocolate classic, this is worth the extra lunchtime calories. For thickness and subtlety, I love the accompanying rum creme anglaise. A scoop of blood orange sorbet on the side is pleasant, but lacks the strong citrus flavour needed to stand up to chocolate.

Business-wise, Ryan Duffy's is a pretty safe investment that's bound to give good return for the dollar.

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