Russell's Marina Grill
8555 Pontchartrain Blvd
New Orleans, LA 70124
Napoleon's Rating - ***/*****
The New Orleans lakefront by West End is changing a great deal these days as massive flood protection projects continue to unfold there. But there's still the promise of cooler breezes in summer, there's still marinas and fishing piers, and there's still Russell's Marina Grill, a breakfast and lunch spot and a fixture of the lakefront scene.
Russell's has that classic diner look, like a place you'd expect to find off a two-lane highway from another era. Fixtures are gleaming and the room is bustling. There's a vintage counter and revolving stools, frosted light fixtures and whipped cream-covered pies in a cooler case. Booths surround the dining room, though be aware that sitting at them can make for a bit of a seesaw match with the person at the next table as the backrest wobbles between you. All walks of life seem to pass through here, and its popularity is such that on the weekends you should expect to wait for a table.
Russell's can get alarmingly hectic on the weekends, yet the waitresses who served us always seemed to somehow balance a rapid pace with a welcoming calm whenever they rotated back to our table. When delays occurred they were explained reasonably and we always felt looked after. On less busy weekdays things go just as smoothly but much faster.
The classic way to start at Russell's is with the "onion mumm." This creation is now a standard of chain restaurants and the carnival midway, but Russell's lays claim to inventing it and you'd be hard pressed to find a better version. This is of course a whole onion sliced into a blossom, battered and fried and then done one better with a cup of remoulade in the center. You break apart the crusty onion strands and dunk them in the spicy sauce as the mumm slowly disappears. This enormous offering must be split several ways and even still it tends to fill people up at the first course, so take it easy. The onion mumm is the show-stopper, but otherwise there's a good gumbo and other fried starters, like pickles and artichoke hearts.
Russell's covers the breakfast and lunch diner basics well enough. The burgers are medium-sized, simply dressed and satisfying without any gourmet touches. Seafood platters are a better choice than po-boys, which seem a bit lackluster by comparison. The country chicken salad is a bed of garden salad basics and a thick layer of fried chicken strips all topped by a towering collection of onion rings. Salad seems the wrong word for this dish. The grilled salmon salad is appropriately lighter, though the generous cut of fish, covered in pesto over a bed of spinach, ensures that it's a satisfying meal.
On the breakfast side of the menu, the usual pancakes and egg plates quickly grow more interesting with unlikely additions. Poached eggs, for instance, are paired with fried catfish over English muffins with Hollandaise. The "morning after omelet" crams as much meat as possible into its egg casing and comes with a bloody Mary on the side. You can even get the waffles topped with fried chicken strips.
Those aren't even the most unusual choices on the breakfast menu though. That honor goes to the Mr. America Roddy Gaubert Special, a two-plate breakfast named for a champion bodybuilder. It's a lean, protein fest consisting of five scrambled egg whites, a large portion of grilled chicken strips and a pair of pancakes made with oatmeal, blueberries and bananas. This much food is more like a challenge than a breakfast, but those pancakes are worthy ordering all on their own.
Red beans are a popular choice for lunch at Russell's, and not just on Mondays. Part of the reason has to be the extraordinary meat accompaniment. Forget the usual link or two of smoked sausage or the fried chicken. Here, red beans come with an enormous smoked ham shank on the side, a dauntingly large joint of meat that looks like it should be on a carving table for a buffet or a holiday spread rather than on a side plate just for you. The ham is indeed very smoky, almost caramelized on the outside and fork tender inside, and you more of less pull it apart to mix in with the beans. It makes for an extraordinary plate of red beans and rice any day of the week.
As a diner, pies are a natural here, and the peanut butter pie is especially good. It's whipped into a mouse and soft as a cloud over a thin ribbon of graham cracker crust. And, as a New Orleans diner, bread pudding is also in the offing, and here it's done with a white chocolate drizzle over its nice crusty top.
Russell's has a full bar and you can even order a bottle of wine with your chicken fried steak if so moved. On the other end of the beverage spectrum are fresh squeezed orange and grapefruit juices, which are part of Russell's unlikely side role as a haven for the health conscious.
This is an inexpensive spot and a bargain for the quality and sheer quantity involved. Even the marquee items mostly stay below $12, and the diner basics are much cheaper. Two people should be able to stuff themselves here for about $30 while a family of four should expect to drop about $45 or $50.
Russell's may have a classic diner look, but when it comes to the cooking the menu here reflects New Orleans tastes and traditions with plenty of twists and creative combinations along the way.