Eating at Ole Savannah Southern Table & Bar is like stepping back in time. Kingston’s newest Southern food and barbecue restaurant is located right next door to the Hudson River Maritime Museum’s brand new Wooden Boat School in a big, beautiful, 1860s brick building. Inside, if you look up, you’ll find evidence of the building’s past as a steam engine repair shop in the form of a gantry — a rusty metal crane that hangs from the middle of the soaring open ceiling. “Back then, the floor only came partway out. At high tide, the water would come right in here, and they’d hoist the engines out of the steamboats with that crane,” says co-owner David Amato.
When Amato and his partners, Mark Guido and Joseph O’Connor, found out that the space formerly occupied by the Steel House Restaurant was available, they pounced. Locations as prime as this one do not open up often. Nowadays, the floor is polished concrete, and beautiful exposed wood trusses and girders arch overhead; heavy black wrought-iron railings and gas lamps along the open balconies are reminiscent of New Orleans architecture. The restaurant has been doing a steady business since it opened last May, according to Amato. The winter crowd is primarily locals; in the summertime, diners can enjoy their meals on the deck overlooking the river. The partners plan to open a sailcloth tent in the side yard in order to cater weddings and private parties right on the water.
Short ribs (left) and the bar (right) at Ole Savannah
Guido’s family owns nearby Mariner’s Harbor restaurant, and the trio gave careful consideration to what type of cuisine would complement the Rondout’s existing offerings, eventually choosing Southern food and barbecue. They then brought in Kenny Callaghan, the celebrated chef behind Southern powerhouse Blue Smoke in New York City, as their consulting chef. “Kenny is a very talented guy,” says Amato. “He designed our menu, created the recipes, and trained our staff.
“We’ve been surprised at the popularity of the Southern classics — things like our gumbo, fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits, and fried chicken,” Amato continues. “I think it’s because people are well-traveled now, and we have a lot of the classic dishes that people got hooked on but can’t get anywhere else in this area.”
On the cold February night when we visited Ole Savannah, our friendly server, Molly, greeted us and took our order. After perusing the long list of beers, wines, and mixed drinks, we ordered a glass each of Awestruck Hard Cider from Walton and a dry Riesling from Brotherhood Winery in Washingtonville. The cider arrived in a pint glass filled to the brim — sweet, sparkling, cold, and refreshing, with vanilla notes and good flavor. We found the Riesling less impressive, with a lack of forward flavors.
We started with an order of corn fritters and a plate of barbecued pulled-pork nachos. The corn and green onion fritters arrived nestled inside a small metal bucket alongside a ramekin of maple butter. Still hot, they were perfectly fried to a deep, crispy brown, with moist interiors that were not too sweet, the better to enjoy the maple butter on them. A hit all around.
Catfish (left) and shrimp (right)
The platter of nachos ate like a meal in itself: a pile of crispy tortilla chips topped with tender pulled pork, chopped scallions, pico de gallo, sliced jalapeños, sour cream, grated cheese, and a splash of barbecue sauce. In order to save room for our entrées, we tried several times to stop eating them, but were largely unsuccessful.
The lightly breaded blackened catfish was more pan-seared than blackened but still quite tasty. It was served swimming in a sea of cucumber and cherry tomato salad — the vinegar providing a nice counterpoint to the fish — and topped with a small pile of grilled sweet corn salsa and microgreens.
The fried chicken — the restaurant’s single most ordered item, according to Amato — is brined in buttermilk and served with two biscuits, coleslaw, and a sweet dipping sauce. The breading was spot-on, and the coleslaw was pleasantly crunchy and creamy, but the chicken fell short of being noteworthy.
A big bowl of Low Country shrimp — served on a rich, creamy bed of grits with bacon, mushrooms, and green onions — was topped with a sprinkling of fried lemon peel. While the flavors in this dish were decadently delicious, the shrimp were surprisingly undercooked.
The standout entrée was the Savannah burger: eight ounces of perfectly cooked Fleisher’s beef served on a bun with the usual suspects — lettuce, tomato, onion (I added cheddar cheese), and a pile of hand-cut French fries. Although the presentation was unpretentious, the combination of flavors was truly superior. We ate it all, fullness be damned!
Out of loyalty to you, dear reader, we ordered a slice of chocolate fudge cake for dessert. They also offer pecan pie, red velvet cake, Key lime pie, cheesecake, and other Southern classics as well as several varieties of Jane’s Ice Cream, which is made in Kingston.
The thick slab of moist chocolate cake was at least five layers high, sprinkled with powdered sugar and served with a dollop of whipped cream on the side. Our server brought four plates and spoons without even being asked, one of many thoughtful gestures throughout the meal. Although the icing-to-cake ratio was perfect, we would have appreciated a bigger pile of whipped cream to accompany such a massive wedge of cake.
Ole Savannah strikes me as a restaurant struggling to reconcile conflicting impulses. Some aspects — the local, pasture-raised meats sourced from nearby Fleisher’s; the organic, heirloom grits from Anson Mills; the focus on local spirits, beers, and wines; and the menu designed by Chef Callaghan are likely to appeal to a certain crowd. Other characteristics — the massive projector screen that dominates the dining space, the three TVs surrounding the indoor bar, and the fact that you get a free meal on your birthday — seem designed to draw a different crowd. But perhaps this slightly confusing mix is simply a good recipe for success in an area with diverse patrons.
Regardless, the barbecue is excellent, and the location is superb. Definitely worth a visit this spring or summer when you can sit outside by the river and enjoy a local beer on tap and some well-prepared local meats. Oh, and kids eat free from Sunday through Thursday.