The original Harvey's has been downtown for more than 100 years. By that yardstick, the restaurant's Maryland outpost, just a few years old, is a mere toddler. But it's already become a reliable seafood institution. Like its Washington counterpart, it's very good, very predictable and very expensive.
With dark wood paneling and etched glass, the dining room reflects in a modern way the opulence of the 1890s -- rich, substantial, conservative, which also describes the menu.
There are no surprises here, not even a nightly special. Harvey's trademark dishes are venerable creations, and even the vegetable dishes never seem to change. But that's not a bad thing when the food is this good. It's fresh, simply prepared, and served in generous portions.
If there's a downside to Harvey's (besides the steep prices), it's the acoustics. Despite the dignified handsomeness of the place, it can be awfully noisy, especially on a crowded weekend night.
For starters, the oysters are excellent. Among the cooked varieties, the best are the grilled ones, with two kinds of cheese, lemon, butter, parsley and minced garlic. Oysters casino are pleasant, too, but the glazed style, topped with too much tomato-horseradish sauce, seems to have been designed for people who don't like the taste of oysters.
Crabcakes, available as an appetizer or entree, are top-notch: The batter crust is thin and golden-light, the filling is a gentle fluff of white crabmeat nicely zippy with pepper, and the whole cake is admirably airy and barely handled.
Soups have been good lately, too. The lobster bisque is subtle and velvety, the softly flavored she-crab soup nicely creamy and yet not too thick. Among the excellent vegetable side dishes, the two highlights are the corn fritters and the zucchini.
Crab imperial has always been a standout at Harvey's, and the tradition shows no sign of faltering. The meat is in big, firm chunks, the eggy sauce just enough to hold things together, the flavoring zippy with mustard and capers. Have it alone, or stuffed in rainbow trout. The least successful version is stuffed in shrimp -- as a general rule, we've found the shrimp to be a bit dry and lacking in delicacy lately.
Another perennial strong suit here that shows no sign of weakening is the cooking of fish. A recent poached salmon was superb -- moist, delicate, flaking perfectly on the fork. Just as outstanding was snapper "Tennessee Ernie Ford," with a lemony filling of lump crabmeat and a restrained touch of bearnaise sauce. (However, swordfish steak was a tad dry from overbroiling.)
If you're used to the garlicky punch of a bouillabaisse or an Italian zuppa di pesci, Harvey's seafood stew may strike you as insufferably tame. But fight the feeling. The seasoning may be gentle, but this is a first-class preparation, crammed with fresh shellfish and fish filet, and with a good tomato-based broth.
Dessert? Go for the chocolate: the strawberries in a wonderful chocolate sauce, or the chocolate-chocolate raspberry torte.