National World War II Museum, 945 Magazine St., 528-1940; www.american-sector.com
Lunch and dinner daily
Hearty sandwiches, inventive bar snacks and many house-made touches
Unusual preparations don't get much explanation from the menu or staff
A stylish setting for reinterpretation of familiar food
American Sector, the latest addition to chef John Besh's growing portfolio of restaurants, is making vintage Americana nearly as intriguing as a new-to-you cuisine.
This impressive task is carried off by dishes like pesto-tomato soup with grilled cheese; banana splits with hazelnuts and velvety chocolate sauce; and even a bologna sandwich — that lunchbox standard, with pork loaf made in-house, cut thick and crisped on the grill. The menu is full of surprises, both in preparation and presentation, and it's all the more remarkable because it's happening inside the ever-expanding National World War II Museum.
Museum restaurants typically have been convenience eateries crammed between exhibit halls. But American Sector reflects an emerging national trend of museums featuring new restaurants from high-profile chefs, including Wolfgang Puck and Danny Meyer. Museum admission is not required at American Sector, and its dining room — an attractive retro/contemporary hybrid of glass walls, polished steel and smooth paneling — opens onto Magazine Street.
Led by chef Todd Pulsinelli, formerly sous chef at Besh's Restaurant August, American Sector is heavily themed to the museum's subject of wartime America. At the bar, this coincides nicely with the revival of vintage cocktails, so throwbacks like the Moscow Mule get marquee attention. The menu is decorated with drawings of warplanes. Warm, house-made potato chips are served in metal cans, a reference to America's industrial war effort, and pickles served in Mason jars conjure homefront frugality.
Some of this might come off as hokey if not for the solid fundamentals girding the food. The Reuben features seeded rye sandwiching corned beef stacked as thick as a reference book. Order the daube and your waiter will gingerly lower to the table a cast iron kettle filled with pot roast chunks and hollow egg noodles in blond gravy loaded with crunchy carrots and long green beans. The open-face tongue sandwich is both a tribute to that relic of American deli cases and a stand-in for New Orleans-style roast beef. It's so tender you can practically slurp it and it's ladled in a massive, messy serving over sourdough.
Lunch business is naturally driven by museum traffic, so there are lots of families and groups of veterans wearing World War II campaign caps. The flipside is that dinner, after museum hours, can feel as lonely as an Edward Hopper painting.
Beware that the menu doesn't offer much guidance for newcomers. The appetizer called simply "shrimp in a cup" is a family-sized bouquet of fried shrimp slathered with mild aioli, but "shrimp in a jar" is, for the same price, a disappointingly meager collection of four tails with pickled vegetables in a vinegar bath. I kept picturing my late grandfathers, both war veterans, picking through this and wishing they had gone straight to the hearty meatloaf instead.
But most often, American Sector improves upon what could be culinary museum pieces. I didn't expect chicken-fried steak to arrive as a three-piece platter of steak roulade over jasmine rice, and I would have assumed fatty bacon was the last excess a fried beef dish needed. But then I tasted how the diced bacon chunks suffused its mushroom gravy with smokehouse flavor and was soon scraping the plate clean. Chalk that dish up as a tribute to American Sector ingenuity.