Chow Town

Savannah, Ga., barbecue starts at Johnny Harris

Grilled rib-eye steak with blue cheese butter, arugula, and cheesy bacon smashed potatoes.
Grilled rib-eye steak with blue cheese butter, arugula, and cheesy bacon smashed potatoes. Special to The Kansas City Star

Johnny Harris is to Savannah, Ga., as Arthur Bryant’s is to Chow Town — they are mandatory stops for all who want a taste of what makes their city famous for barbecue.

They were established by the original owners as sit-down restaurants during the first two decades of the 20th century. Each serves a continuous multitude of loyal local customers, curious tourists and a who’s who of celebrity visitors. That’s where the similarities stop.

Johnny Harris is a casual dining restaurant with table service, Southern charm and a roadside shack pedigree. Arthur Bryant’s is a seat yourself serving-line restaurant with Chow Town charm and a grease-house pedigree.

The Johnny Harris menu is built on Southern favorites. Arthur Bryant’s menu is built on a legacy of pitmasters from Tennessee and Texas with a Chow Town tweak.

A good friend and barbecue buddy from New Hampshire and I recently drove from Amelia Island to Savannah, Ga., on the eve of the Great Southern Tailgate Cookoff. Our primary destination was Johnny Harris to visit with co-owner and longtime friend, Phil Donaldson, and his daughter, Julie. I brought Julie Donaldson Lowenthal’s new book, Johnny Harris Restaurant Cookbook, for her autograph.

After a warm greeting and introductions, we were seated at a large round table with Phil, his wife, Yvonne, daughter Julie, grandson Corbin, and Julie’s husband, B.J. Lowenthal.

Although I told Phil we were grazing on small quantities, I knew “small quantities” is not active in his vocabulary. Phil and grandson Corbin ordered a feast. Who were we to go lightly on such fantastic food! My friend Bill couldn’t stop from enjoying so much Southern fare that he didn’t have room for more at our next planned stop.

We started with the original Johnny Harris Brunswick Stew and the new Southern Style Brunswick Stew. The latter was better than any I’ve tasted besides the original, but I gave a slight edge to the original.

Next up was freshly baked rolls, Vidalia onion dip, gluten-free fried chicken, barbecue smoked chicken, lamb, pulled pork, baby back ribs, spareribs, sausage, sweet potato casserole, fried asparagus, mac & cheese and green beans.

A Southern feast is not complete without dessert. Delicious coconut cream pie, hot fudge pie with mocha sauce and Carolina Trifle sweetened our palates. Kudos to the Donaldson extended family, manager Doug Matsuoka, pitmaster Jason Hampton, kitchen supervisor Joann Polite, and the entire kitchen and wait staff for exceptional food and hospitality.

If you hunger for Johnny Harris cuisine but a trip to Savannah is not in the works, grab Julie’s cookbook and plan a menu. There’s a full year’s worth and more of recipes that will never fail to wow you and your guests.

She Crab Soup? Julie’s classic version rivals any in Charleston, S.C. Fried green tomatoes? How about layering them with homemade pimento cheese? Recipes for the Johnny Harris feast go on and on, along with history and priceless recollections by Phil and other key players in the Johnny Harris legacy.

Here, with Julie’s permission, is an easy, flavorful recipe to get you started. You can serve it with style at a formal dinner or in casual mode at a tailgate party.

Rib-eye Steaks with Blue Cheese Butter

Makes 4 servings

1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened

1/4 cup walnuts, toasted

2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

1 3/4 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary

6 large cloves garlic, peeled

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

4 (12-ounce) beef rib-eye steaks

In a small bowl, combine the blue cheese, butter, walnuts, parsley and 1/4 teaspoon of rosemary. Mix well, shape into a 5-inch long log and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes, or until firm.

In a food processor, combine the garlic, salt, pepper and the remaining rosemary and process until well blended. Rub the garlic mixture over both sides of the steaks.

Grill the steaks on a covered grill over medium heat for 4 to 6 minutes on each side for rare, or until the meat reaches the desired doneness.

Unwrap the blue cheese butter, cut 4 1/2-inch pats of butter and place one pat atop each steak. Serve immediately and pass or refrigerate the remaining butter.

Julie’s “Johnny Harris Restaurant Cookbook” and the full line of Johnny Harris kosher certified sauces are available online.

Ardie Davis is an iconic figure in the barbecue community. He founded a sauce contest on his backyard patio in 1984 that became the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce, Rub & Baste contest. He is a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and an inductee into the KCBS’ Hall of Flame. He has been interviewed on food shows and writes for barbecue-related publications. He is also the author of books on barbecue. His most recent release is “America’s Best BBQ Homestyle: What Champions Cook in Their Own Backyards.”