It was a lazy weekend and the road beckoned. With no gear except sunglasses, we left New Orleans for a scenic drive. Perhaps it was fate. As I drove down Highway 942, Houmas House Plantation and Gardens appeared suddenly, much like a mini-Versailles, but in this case arising across from a Mississippi River levee. We had to stop. It was all there: a majestic antebellum mansion and lush gardens.
It turned out that my friend and I had happened upon a busy day at Houmas House. Three weddings were scheduled, and we were the wedding crashers. Looking for a brief haven, we headed for the Turtle Bar (though we were told to expect wedding attendees to pop in and out).
The Turtle Bar is separate from the main house. It was built in 1828 as a pigeonnaire (housing for pigeons) and then was transformed into a garcionniere (a place where unmarried men resided). Its latest incarnation, I jokingly say, is a barconnaire (where those fond of cocktails reside).
Why the name Turtle Bar? According to our bartender, John Thibaut, Houmas House owner Kevin Kelly, bought a light fixture with a brass turtle centerpiece to go in the bar, which has about 20-foot high ceilings. Kelly then realized he had several other turtle themed items he had collected over the years—and well, why not decorate à la turtles? The building’s 19th-century elegance – brick walls and burnished copper-top bar – is enhanced by the eccentricity of the turtles, as well as by the stuffed buffalo and deer heads and a bust of a Southern Native American.
While Thibaut can concoct any number of cocktails, what you want him to do is make a mint julep. Apparently the gimlets, Old Fashioneds and martinis are all quite delicious. The mint julep, however, is dynamite. Probably because Thibaut picks fresh mint from the garden, behind the building, for every julep made. Thibaut then packs leaves in the bottom of the glass, adds the muddled mint, a slice of lime, ice, simple syrup and bourbon (Jack Daniel’s). You must sip through the straw or you won’t get the full experience of sweetness tempered every so slightly by bourbon and mint.
For those interested in dining, there are two options at the plantation: lunch at Café Burnside and dinner at Latil’s Landing.