Dec 3, 200912:00 AM
Our weekly blog on the New Orleans fine dining scene
A Swell Place for Rations
The American Sector embraces such diner classics as onion rings and milkshakes, and even dishes that are not typical diner fare, such as this rabbit pâté, get a playful twist.
Photo courtesy of Robert Peyton
Chef John Besh’s American Sector has all the trappings you’d expect of a theme restaurant in the National World War II Museum. The servers look like they stepped from behind a soda fountain; the hostesses are in period dress; and the menu is full of such diner and drugstore-counter classics as meatloaf with mashed potatoes, chicken-fried steak and a corned beef sandwich with sauerkraut on rye.
The American Sector pulls it off without being kitschy, in part because the overall décor is modern, with the same high ceilings and quasi-industrial feel as the rest of the museum. The restaurant is located down a long hallway from the museum entrance, past the theater and the gift shop. There is a hostess station in the hallway as you approach and seating in the open space just behind it. The main dining area sits to the side, behind a glass-and-steel wall with multiple doors opening onto the hallway. The space behind that wall is dominated by a long, centrally located bar that functions as a sort of modern-day soda fountain, and tables are set up around it. Service is casual –– but it’s hard to imagine a waiter wearing a paper hat being too formal, and it’s certainly functional.
Many of the classics on the menu at the American Sector are played straight. The slow-cooked beef tongue sandwich features the meat thinly sliced in a rich brown gravy, served open-faced over sourdough bread with some finely diced carrot and celery as garnish. The onion rings are substantial, with a light, crispy batter brought to a dark golden-brown in the fryer. Some dishes, such as the sloppy Joe made with shredded short rib meat, are more of a starting point for Besh to fool around with the tropes. Replacing ground beef with shredded rib meat may not sound like much of a change, but the difference is revealed in the texture and flavor of the sandwich.
Even dishes you wouldn’t expect at a diner come in for a playful approach: Rabbit pâté is served in a faux potted-meat tin, complete with a pop-top lid that lifts off and saltine crackers wrapped in paper tied at each end with string. The “snacks” portion of the menu includes the aforementioned rabbit pâté, as well as spicy garlic-glazed fried chicken with watermelon pickles.
“House-made” is as much a theme at the American Sector as at other Besh restaurants; the bologna in a sandwich served with spicy chowchow is made on the premises, as are the potato chips served with all the sandwiches. The sodas, too, are made by the restaurant, and they’re served in quart-size seltzer dispensers. They’re a bit sweet for my taste, but I’m a bitter man and prefer bitter things, so you may disagree.
Besides the sodas, there are five milkshakes from which to choose, and you can make them “malted” for the addition of 50 cents. Chocolate and vanilla milkshakes you’d expect, but bananas Foster and strawberry-almond are something of a twist. The current seasonal flavor is pumpkin, and it’s very good, with a hint of the spice you probably tasted over Thanksgiving in a pie.
The menu has some nods to the current trend for Southern food, too: There are side dishes of “Southern” greens and black-eyed peas and rice, a salad of purple hull peas with hogshead cheese, chicken and dumplings and pork cheeks served with corn bread and black-eyed peas. New Orleans cuisine is not neglected; the menu offers fried seafood poor boys (trout, buster crab, oyster and shrimp) and shrimp Creole served with Louisiana jasmine rice, for example.
It wouldn’t be a Besh restaurant if the menu weren’t studded with references to local products. The corned beef is prepared from locally raised grass-fed cattle, the smoked lamb ribs served with a mayhaw glaze are from a farm on the Northshore, and P&J supplies the oysters. It goes without saying that the other seafood on the menu is from local waters. The American Sector isn’t as precious about naming the local products as some other restaurants, but it’s clear that there’s an emphasis on sourcing things from local providers.
Museums tend to attract tiny humans, and the selection of “kids’ lunch boxes” on the menu is a recognition of that fact. Wee folk can choose between a house-made corn dog, a mini-cheeseburger, fried shrimp, a grilled cheese sandwich, and “mac-n-cheese.” Each box is served with fries, a soft drink, a cookie and “surprises” that I am told are of the pleasant variety. As opposed to a rabid squirrel, I suppose. I think that’s just good common sense –– because who wants to open a box lunch only to be “surprised” by a rabid squirrel? Not me, buster.
Unlike the soda fountains of old, the American Sector has a full bar. The selection of wines includes multiple options by the glass, and only local beers are poured on tap, with additional selections available by the bottle. The drinks are divided into “cocktails” and “mixed drinks,” and though I’m sure someone better versed in mixology could explain, the distinction is lost on me. The Cosmopolitan, Manhattan and Grasshopper are listed under cocktails, while the Cuba Libre, Pimm’s Cup and Moscow Mule are described as mixed drinks. Ultimately, what you call a drink doesn’t matter so long as it’s prepared well, and they appear to do a good job at that. You may, of course, also order New Orleans classics such as the Ramos Gin Fizz, the Herbsaint Frappé and the Sazerac.
The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m., and you can call for reservations or more information at 528-1940.