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Steak to the heart 

Melissa Buote sets her fears of strip malls aside, and, with the help of Porter’s Steakhouse, comes to love dining in Dartmouth.

Strip malls. I can't say I love 'em. Maybe it's because the parking lots tend to be a buzzing glow of industrial light boxes. Or maybe it's because if you look around too much, you are sure to find some Patrick Nagal-style artwork bathed in the assailing neon tint of words like "waxing" and "nails."

But no matter what is lighting the lots, the convenience of being able to park your car at a restaurant---not 10 blocks away---is worth all of the dimly lit concrete in the world. There also happen to be some darn good restaurants in HRM strip malls. Milamodo and Jamieson's Irish House and Grill come to mind. As does Porter's Steakhouse.

Entering Porter's, there is a pleasant, smoky char in the air. We opt to circle around the sprawling bar. The middle of the room has a sunken area, with a huge fireplace centerpiece, grey stones climbing to the ceiling like a column of smoke. A small fire burns, warming the surrounding booths. My two friends and I sit near the fire, and read through menus offered by a friendly, smiling server.

For appetizers we share crab cakes ($9) and the calamari ($10). Two fat crab cakes quickly arrive, fried a deep caramel colour. A crack through the crispy panko breading reveals a lush mix of delicately sweet blue crab mashed with hearty potato and corn. They are very good, accompanied by a mild house-made tartar sauce.

The pile of mellow calamari is lightly golden, dusty and flaking with semolina flour. The rings are supple and tender, quite tasty. The innate blandness of squid generally calls for a marinade or sauce, and we are given two choices---a dull, forgettable dill tzatziki, and a sweet chili sauce that offers a nice sugary bite.

After our surf, we all move on to turf. I order the eight-ounce sirloin ($16), and my friends the braised lamb ($16) and "mammoth" ribs ($19)---the daily special. We share a moment of despair upon learning they have run out of roasted potatoes, then settle on the garlic mashed potatoes as our side dish. Each plate also comes with a little pile of sauteed fresh vegetables.

The steak is firm, juicy and adequately seasoned, a perfect medium-rare. Slicing through the grill's deep caramelized char, the steak pops with a bright blush in the middle. The potatoes are a creamy mash, with only a hint at garlic. The vegetables are fresh, but over-salted and overcooked, having lost all crispness.

The ribs are, indeed, mammoth. They're tip-over-the-Flintstones'-car huge. The relatively tiny piles of potatoes and vegetables cower on the shadowy plate, almost invisible under the rack. Coated in a smoky, syrupy hickory smoke sauce, the beef pulls easily away from the bone. Delicious.

The lamb is as deftly cooked as the ribs. Pot roasted in red wine and Mediterranean spices, the meat itself is delicious, but it inexplicably sits in a puddle of relentlessly salty sauce, which overpowers everything it touches.

In order to save room for dessert, we pack away enough leftovers for the next day's lunch. We decide to split the brownie ($7) and a gingerbread cake ($7). The servings are massive, with two scoops of French vanilla ice cream with each dessert. The gingerbread cake is light and incredibly moist, with a nice buzz of ginger and hints of spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. It doesn't have the rich molasses taste of gingerbread, and tastes more like pumpkin pie spice, but is still very good. The brownie is dense and rich, exactly what we expect.

We leave, full, and walk the 10 feet to our car. Strip malls. Maybe I do love 'em.

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