By Kathy K. Martin
John and Lauren Stokes host a house party every night in Oxford. Located in an older one-story home along Jackson Avenue, the married couple invites guests to experience Old World comfort food in their restaurant, Tarasque Cucina.
“John and I always had a dream to open our own place,” explains Lauren, who recounts how she designed the layout and menu for her future restaurant when she was just a little girl growing up in Maine. Ironically, John had the same dream as a boy and eventually began cooking at a former Oxford restaurant, The Hoka, when he was 15 years old; and then continued to work at restaurants in Dallas, Nashville and Alaska in his early 20s.
Their dream restaurant concept came together as they converted the vacant house into Tarasque Cucina in 2014 and opened in early 2015. “We want diners to feel that they’re at the most fun, welcoming house party,” explains Lauren. She believes that they’ve succeeded in that feeling as they welcome regular diners every night and witness the chatter and laughter as the regulars mingle with new diners and transform the place into one big family around multiple dining tables.
“We have worked really hard to keep our space welcoming, positive, and inclusive for everyone,” says Lauren, “We just want you to have fun and eat some good food!” They enjoy greeting and feeding guests, especially people who knew John from his growing-up years, and visit to see his dream now a reality.
The name for the restaurant comes from French folklore and the story of Saint Martha, the patron saint of cooks. As the story goes, a wild beast named Tarasque terrorized many villages, and the people tried to fight back but couldn’t conquer the beast. Saint Martha overcame the dragon using her grace and charm. John especially loves this parable. “It shows that through honest grace you can make anything happen,” he says, “even tame the beast.”
The food at Tarasque Cucina centers on salads; classic pasta dishes such as spaghetti and sugo di pomodoro and pappardelle Bolognese; and rotating small plates. The couple uses ingredients from local sources as much as possible, along with vegetables from their own garden at their home in Water Valley. “We really love food ourselves, so we cook what we want to eat,” says Lauren of their mission to just make delicious dishes prepared with care.
Their rendition of a Caesar salad is a particular favorite of guests. Instead of the traditional Romaine, theirs is made with chopped napa cabbage and sunflower shoots grown by Nathan Richardson, a farmer in Water Valley. The dressing is made with roasted garlic and an Italian fish sauce. Another customer favorite is the house-made sourdough ciabatta, which is baked daily using a sourdough made by a family of bakers in Alaska, which Lauren’s mother gave to John over a decade ago.
The variety of small plates, especially those that feature fish, are always enjoyed as well. Some of their featured summer vegetable small plates were squash blossoms stuffed with mozzarella and fresh oregano over a green strawberry vinaigrette and a green bean panzanella with aioli, local tomatoes and their homemade bread toasted into chewy yet crunchy croutons.
The restaurant also features a variety of dessert choices such as chocolate cream puffs, vanilla bean panna cotta and vanilla wafer tiramisu, which they call “nillasu.”
Alcohol is not on the menu, but a liquor store is just a few steps away from the restaurant. Guests are welcome to bring their own bottles with a $2 per person glass fee.
John and Lauren are grateful for staff members who feel more like best friends; and they are thankful that their restaurant weathered the COVID pandemic. “We have dealt as gracefully as we possibly can with the same issues everyone else is dealing with across the board,” explains Lauren. “It’s good to have a five-year plan and a 10-year plan, but we’ve learned the importance of staying flexible and staying positive.”
Realizing the dream of their restaurant coming to fruition leaves the couple feeling humbled and joyful. And much like their favorite Saint Martha parable, they also bring charm and grace to serve diners like friends over for a house party.
Visit www.tarasque.net for more information and the full menu.
Recipe and foreword from Lauren Stokes
Here is our "recipe" for tomato toast. It sounds silly to have a recipe for something so simple, but just a few extra steps really make an already perfect dish go from delicious to next level!
1 perfect tomato
Bread (ideally a sourdough or sturdier bread, sliced white bread has its time and place but won't hold up as well in this dish)
Salt and pepper
1 garlic clove
1. Peel the tomato (trust us, John's Mimi does this and she is never wrong!), then slice into chunky rounds and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Let them sit.
2. Glug olive oil onto a cutting board and rub your bread slice all around in it (both sides) until it is covered.
3. Toast the bread.
4. When the bread is toasted and still hot, rub one side with a peeled garlic clove. The garlic will melt into the bread.
5. Add mayo to your toasted bread on the garlic side.
6. Top with tomato slices and basil if you're feeling extra. Enjoy!