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Harvey’s review: A testament to experience and family in Falls Church

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From the moment I eased onto a bar stool at Harvey’s, I knew I had found a friend. I had a panoramic view of the kitchen. The hearth in the corner flickered flames in the back of its cast-ceramic floor, as a cook slid plates in and out of the oven’s half-moon opening. The counter underneath my arms was sculpted from an ash tree, its surface smooth and glossy but its edge still rugged with bark. There wasn’t a single TV hanging overhead, which only contributed to my sense about this Falls Church restaurant: The place is rock solid, built on a foundation as immovable as that wood bar.

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The namesake of Harvey’s is chef and owner Thomas Harvey, a bear of a man with a thick black beard and tattoos running the length of both arms. He has cooked under professionals who have left marks as permanent as body art on D.C. culture, chefs steeped in both tradition and technique. Think Nathan Anda, the whole-animal specialist at the Partisan; Frank Ruta, the former White House cook who brooded over every detail at Palena, down to the last grain of salt; and Fabio Trabocchi, the Italian native who once operated Casa Luca, a restaurant thick with memories and dishes from Le Marche.

But Harvey also served as corporate chef for the Tuskie’s Restaurant Group, a company that understands the hearts and palates of suburban diners. Harvey, in short, has accumulated the kind of experience — gastronomic, financial, managerial — that diners and investors just expected until modern food culture (was it cable TV? Social media? The fact that a 20-year-old can be called a “celebrity chef”?) convinced every culinary school graduate that they needed to run their own business by age 25. Harvey didn’t debut his restaurant until just a few months shy of his 40th birthday.

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You can feel the weight of that experience inside Harvey’s. You sense it in the owner’s decision to carve out space for a small market that hawks beer, wine, sauces and more, all hedges against the unpredictable mood swings of a pandemic. You see it on a chalkboard mural that greets you at the entrance; it celebrates the farms, breweries, wineries, welders, designers and other businesses that contributed to the successful launch of such an intimate, craft-focused restaurant. You taste it on a menu that understands just how far to push innovation without alienating diners seeking homestyle comforts.

Once you have absorbed the chef’s influences — and talked to the man about them — you can start to trace direct lines between Harvey’s personal history and an item on the menu, or a particular element in the dining room. The black-and-white-checkered tile near the bar, and the oversized fork and spoon hanging on the wall next to the two-top? They are nods to the chef’s maternal grandmother, whose cooking and sense of style left a lasting impression on a young Harvey.

But take a close look at the half chicken that arrives on antique china. The bird’s bronzed exterior is crisp — and charred in those spots where the skin maintained contact with the cast-iron pan as it sizzled in the hearth. The dish is Harvey’s homage to the roast chicken at Palena, a legendary plate that, perhaps more than any other in the history of D.C. dining, inspired home cooks to reverse engineer it in a vain attempt to unlock its mysteries. Harvey’s version is superb, and, perhaps best of all, you don’t have to wait 40 minutes for the chicken to hit your table, as you once did at Ruta’s house of rare objects.

Harvey’s burger is named for Seven Hills Food, the processor and wholesaler that specializes in Virginia beef. Harvey became a convert to Seven Hills during his time at the Partisan, and his seven-ounce pub burger can go toe to toe with any. You can order it with your choice of cheese, and should you opt for pimento, you’ll find yourself in a pitched battle to hold those slippery ingredients between two buns. It’s a fight worth fighting. In fact, any dish featuring beef at Harvey’s is worth the investment. Two in particular stand out: the 12-ounce rib-eye enriched with pats of a duck-fat compound butter, and the beer cheese-steaks in which Philly’s beloved sandwich is smothered in a cheese sauce infused with IPA, adding a bitter and citrusy edge to the bite.

One wintry afternoon, I ruminated over the dry-aged pork chop whose sweetness, I was convinced, couldn’t be attributed wholly to its agrodolce sauce. It was only after talking with Harvey that I learned the secret to the pork sourced from Baker’s Farm in Mount Jackson, Va.: Steve Baker mixes ice cream into the feed for his hogs, resulting in meat that’s ever so sweet on the tongue. The bacon from Baker’s Farm also makes for an ideal wrapper for Harvey’s shrimp skewers; the strips of cured pork belly don’t overwhelm the shrimp, so immaculately cleaned and cooked to a state of plump sweetness. And is it my imagination, or is the candied bacon on the pimento cheese deviled eggs even sweeter than advertised?

If Harvey’s has a weakness, it is the owner’s penchant to overwork a dish. Case in point: the fried green tomatoes. They’re encrusted with Fritos and paired with a black bean puree, smashed avocados and a pickled vegetable salsa, a ringing chorus of garnishes that all but drown out the star. The fried calamari is battered in a Yorkshire pudding (whose recipe can be traced back to Harvey’s paternal side of the family in England), but the batter doesn’t cling well to the squid, falling off in soft, soggy clumps, adding little to the appetizer. The onion dip features a trio of softened leeks, red onions and Spanish onions suspended in cream cheese and sour cream, a combination so rich and quietly sweet that it deserves a neutral canvas. But the dip comes with chicharrones and everything-spiced crostini, which deliver as much interference as flavor.

Then again, the creative mind that finds it difficult to leave well enough alone is the same one that engineered the mushroom “scallop,” a vegetarian entree in which the meaty stems of royal trumpet mushrooms are seared, scored and steamed until their texture resembles that of the prized bivalves. When the dish is done right, you’ll find few meatless options that compare.

Your server will read the dessert menu aloud, and on some nights, it’s a list that must test the staff’s memorization skills. The banana split with Tajin-spiced popcorn will blow your inner child’s mind, but the dessert to order is the honey cake, 10 layers of honeyed cookies softened with a combination of pastry cream and buttercream. Cool, sweet and subtle, the cake has the power of a whisper in a crowded room. The recipe comes from the family of Harvey’s wife, Inna Grigoryeva, who also helped with the design of the restaurant. The cake is the final piece of the puzzle at Harvey’s, a place all about history and familial roots, but one that welcomes others, like you and me, to join its inner circle.

513 West Broad St., Falls Church; 540-268-6100; harveysva.com.

Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.

Nearest Metro: East Falls Church or West Falls Church-VT/UVA, with a short trip to the restaurant.

Prices: $2.75 to $48 for all items on the menus.

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