945 Magazine Street
New Orleans, LA 70130
Napoleon's Rating - ***/*****
Eating at a restaurant within a museum is usually simply a matter of convenience, and expectations naturally are pretty low. But American Sector is different. Chef John Besh opened the place late in 2009 inside a new expansion wing of the amazing National World War II Museum in the Warehouse District. It is closely themed to the museum's subject, and while it does primarily serve museum visitors it also is set up as a stand-alone restaurant accessible to the general public. The kitchen specializes in old-fashioned American cooking, creatively re-imagined with plenty of nods to 1940's-era nostalgia and New Orleans flavor.
Museum admission is not required to visit American Sector. The dining room opens directly to Magazine Street, where there is a patio with umbrella-shaded tables. The look inside is an attractive combination of 1940's-era retro, wartime memorabilia and contemporary design, with lots of glass walls, smooth wood paneling and polished steel. There's a large, wrap-around bar with flat-screen TVs showing sports or ads for museum events. These are good spots for solo diners. Be aware that the large dining room can fill instantly when big tour groups descend, while at other times (especially at night, after museum hours) the place can feel very lonely.
Service has been a persistent problem at American Sector, due at least in part to the split personality of the restaurant from lunch to dinner. Many of the dishes here are unusual interpretations of erstwhile familiar American food, though the menu offers scant description and the waiters rarely explain what you might be in for without your prompting them first. While service is generally swift, it is often forgetful. Some dishes go missing, and timing of courses can be awkward.
Led by chef Todd Pulsinelli, formerly sous chef at Besh's Restaurant August, the American Sector kitchen is full of surprises. This means meals can be playful and adventurous, but it does pay to quiz the staff about some dishes, especially those listed on the "snacks" (a.k.a. appetizers) section of the menu. For instance, there's a choice of "shrimp in a cup" and "shrimp in a jar." The first is a huge portion of fried shrimp coated in creamy aioli and served in a paper cone, which I recommend, while the second, which I don't recommend, turns up as a small glass jar filled with vinegar, pickled vegetables and four lonely shrimp, plus a saucer of remoulade on the side. Onion rings are fat, puffy, and straightforward, while "fried chicken" turns out to be chicken wings, which are overpriced but tasty thanks to a spicy garlic sauce and watermelon pickles on the side. I like the empanada-style crabmeat pies and a fascinating salad made with purple hull peas, crisp arugula and fried cubes of hog headcheese.
The creative preparations and presentations continue right along with entrees. For instance, the chicken fried steak is great, though unorthodox. Here it starts as thinly-sliced steak, as usual, but then it's rolled into beef spirals, sliced into three disks and arranged artistically over a bed of jasmine rice with gravy, mushrooms and thick hunks of fatty, smoky bacon. Trout is coated by crushed potato chips and balanced in a stack over tartar sauce and a composition of vegetables. The crab and sausage stew is more straightforward and just as satisfying as it sounds while the very hearty daube arrives in a cast iron kettle filled with pot roast chunks, egg noodles, carrots and green beans all soaked down by gravy. Lunch is a big deal here, so sandwiches figure prominently on the menu. One called "the Sicilian" is actually a muffuletta. A Rueben sandwich is stacked thick with excellent corned beef on seeded rye, and it is presented attractively on a cutting block. I'm a fan of the open-face tongue sandwich, which tastes quite a bit like a roast beef po-boy and is just as messy. There's even a bologna sandwich, though this pork loaf is made in-house and grilled to a crisp edge.
Given the theme here, it feels natural that American Sector plays up the old-fashioned soda fountain idea with milkshakes and sundaes, though of course there are twists. The banana split is made with hazelnut fudge, for instance. Cupcakes are topped with icing dappled with bacon bits and the "sector jacks" are the house rendition of Cracker Jacks.
The bar makes an interesting range of cocktails, with a special emphasis on old school drinks of the 1940s and post-war era. Try a Moscow mule (vodka, lime and ginger beer). The beer taps feature brews made especially for the restaurant by Covington's Heiner Brau.
While prices are generally moderate, a meal here can prove expensive if you're not careful. Specialty cocktails are about $10 each, for instance. Most sandwiches are in the $10 range, and they are very hearty. Most entrees are under $20. There is also a children's menu with meals for $7.
American Sector is Besh's salute to nostalgic Americana, and the classy, stylish setting and ingenuity of the menu make it a fitting tribute. It's a unique place for New Orleans, a fantastic amenity for the National World War II Museum and a restaurant well worth visiting for a meal independent of a trip through the museum.