It was always going to rule them all.
When Gavin Kaysen swept back into town eight years ago, he graced the Twin Cities with his take on new-American cuisine (Spoon and Stable) and rooted it in technique honed under one of the nation's greatest chefs (Daniel Boulud) before dazzling diners, five years later, with his intimate church of fine dining (Demi).
With more pomp and fanfare, Kaysen is at it again.
Mara must look the part, both in deference to him and its setting, the Four Seasons. That may be why the dining room resembles the throne room of what Aladdin might build if he sold out on private equity. A floating wall of curtains shimmers in sunset; velvet booths, embraced by walls scalloped with gold, are occupied by diners dressed like royals; at dusk, a web of chandeliers casts its glow, de-aging faces while illuminating what could be the most beautiful dining room in the city. An adjoining bar, where cocktail luminary Adam Witherspoon holds court, is equally inviting.
"Who are these people and where do they come from?" I ask. Some look like rich people who have emerged from hibernation, faces powdered; some are private wealth managers from the offices above, courting clients; and others are simply looking for good food. Or ways to spend their money, quickly. To begin, a glass of Dom Pérignon for $125.
Note there are no caviar supplements, nor any sordid attempt to shower truffles on, say, hummus. But there is chicken, for $34.
It arrives looking half-naked, with a baby's fistful of shaved fennel alongside charred lemon. And it may look like you've been stiffed if it were not for the fact that this chicken will make you question all the prior ones you've enjoyed. The skill for getting it right with so little comes from talent and, more tellingly, the six months Kaysen and his chef de cuisine, Thony Yang, spent developing the recipe: a Wild Acres breed, brined overnight, marinated in chermoula spice, grilled to order on a brick press and brushed with a pomegranate molasses. The mildly bitter overtones, crisp skin and fervid juiciness left me rabid.
Riffs on Mediterranean
Mara opened in June, at a hotel chain known for attracting highly decorated chefs abroad, like Anne Sophie Pic and Christian Le Squer, both members of the three-Michelin-star club. But, with a few exceptions — the late Joël Robuchon, formerly at the Four Seasons New York, and Thomas Keller, at the Surfside, Fla., location — the brand has struggled to attract talent stateside. Kaysen's concept proves he is unencumbered by location or label, instead selling the dream of ferrying you off to some swanky resort restaurant, thousands of miles away.
But without all the splendor, what is Mara?
An outstanding restaurant, surely. It breeds nearly the same level of excellence that made my visits to Spoon and Stable, Kaysen's inaugural restaurant, more regular than I could afford. And it coddles you in equal measure, with a team that glides around the dining room like Balkan dancers.
I'll return for that chicken and stay for his other inspired takes on the Mediterranean canon. The lamb shank, almost too glorious for its vessel, is livened with isphahan, a spice blend of green cardamom and limon Omani, a dried Middle Eastern lime; and sits on a bed of puy lentils sweetened with dried apricots. Use your fork to scrape it, and the fat surrenders.
On the lighter end of the spectrum, a watermelon and tomato salad that deftly frames summer is paired with smooth feta mousse and a sumac vinaigrette just bright enough to tease without handicapping the fruits.
There is branzino, and it's twice the price of the chicken. But like the precious child you cannot admonish, this one is faultless: clean, sweet and tender flesh needing only a dab or two of the charred lemon. Terrific sidekicks (fennel salad, couscous and tzatziki) notwithstanding, at that price I want to see the entirety of the fish, salt crust intact, to avoid the underlying feeling of a bait-and-switch.
Mara hews to its canon but isn't bound by it. Yes, the textbook hummus is creamy as gelato, and as umami as it should be; the labneh has the right consistency, and the pitas swell majestically. But Kaysen's riffs mean that the soubise that fortifies a mushroom side is accented with turmeric; and the pistou that accompanies a halibut entree is made with nasturtium, a sweet and peppery leaf.
And in the cases where the menu wavers — this is a hotel restaurant, after all — it still produces dishes to remember.
A dry-aged New York Strip has the robustness that justifies why its purveyor, Peterson Farms, distributes to top restaurants. The kitchen cooks it until it's ruddy, when a thin dark crust develops, and then fans it ceremoniously on a platter, already well-rested. It's low on fat but high on minerality, with a hint of musk. And agnolotti, a late addition, pairs raw sweet corn and woody chanterelles — a combination that may not be novel but had our table rhapsodic.
With more pruning, the menu's "raw and cured" dishes could have the same effect. Fennel pollen third-wheeled ocean trout — it was hard to tell this was a prized, fatty variety from Tasmania — and while the lamb tartare was only mildly gamy, an overpowering marinade took it a little too far.
Tuna tartare, best among the crudos, gets the balance just right, with its nip of citrus and appeal of fried shallots. Spanish mackerel, austere by comparison, pairs little parcels of gently cured fish with charred cucumber and a vivid consommé to keep the richness in check — a master class in restraint.
The same exacting standards can be applied to Mara's sides. One, the potatoes, are fried to order, yielding a crackling armor and a soft interior that made us go quiet. Another, the mushrooms, are intensely flavorful. I'm not surprised that the red lentil crackers and black pepper grissini upstaged the lamb tartare and cured ham, respectively. They should be packaged and sold immediately.
A few forgettables
With Yang at the helm — he was one of Kaysen's trusted lieutenants at Demi — the kitchen's precision clearly is not lost.
In fact, the only instances where this doesn't hold true are the times when the transgressions were minor. Pistachio semifreddo was creamy one night but runny another; during brunch, an otherwise flavorful crab Benedict was served with an English muffin that grew soggy and yolk that had congealed by the time it reached our table because it sat on the pass longer than it should have.
Only a few dishes were forgettable. Halibut was dry on both occasions I tried it, and it came with an eggplant caponata whose flavor I found strangely unpleasant. Lobster pasta was al dente and swimming in a flavorful lobster stock, but its acidity made me wince. And a grilled gem salad was buried in what was meant to be dill pollen breadcrumbs but ate like sand. It needed more vinaigrette, too.
Most of the desserts here, courtesy of pastry chef Eddy Dhenin, will be etched in memory. The semifreddo is an Impressionist painting brought to life, with a crumble standing in for grass and a rich eggy cream, deeply lyrical of pistachio. There's a delicately sculpted rose dessert, where chocolate sponge, with its ethereal texture, is bound by a jellied veil of rose syrup and pooled with strawberry consommé. More compelling is the Chocolate Decadence, with its plush layers of dense cake and coffee cremeux beside an intensely dark, cacao-forward sorbet. The desserts at brunch, including a croissant-waffle "Croffle" with pistachio ice cream, are good enough to draw you in midday, when the lighting still flatters, and the savory dishes are equally matched.
Comparisons to Kaysen's other restaurants are unavoidable. Spoon and Stable has a wider canvas, while Demi's environment ensures it can always deliver a four-star dining experience. Mara doesn't scale to such heights.
But it comes very close, more than it needs to. During certain days when I'm feeling lavish, there's no place I'd rather be.
Location: 245 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., 612-895-5709, mararestaurantandbar.com
Hours: Breakfast 7-10:30 a.m. Mon.-Fri., 7-9:30 a.m. Sat.-Sun.; dinner 5-9:30 p.m. daily; brunch Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Prices: Breakfast ranges from pastries ($7) and shakshuka ($19) to a breakfast plate ($21); brunch tops out at $38 for steak and eggs. The dinner is divided by spreads and vegetables ($14-$17), raw and cured ($19-$25), pasta ($32-$34) and land and sea ($34-$68). Sides are $12-$14, desserts $12-$15.
Beverage program: The hotel's inventive beverage program is helmed by Adam Witherspoon. Notable favorites (all $15) include a terrific Old Fashioned, the spicy Arrabbiata, and the Arpege, a vodka- and gin-based cocktail fortified with jasmine and rose. Nonalcoholic cocktails ($10), making terrific use of 3 LECHE products, are not to be missed.
Parking: Valet and metered street parking.
Worth noting: The adjoining bar is walk-in only and has a bar bites menu — the lamb burger and panisse (chickpea fritters) are especially memorable — but the full menu is available, too. The bar opens daily at 2 p.m. and starts serving food at 5 p.m. Mara also supplies the hotel's bright daytime eatery, Socca Café, open weekdays from 7 a.m.-2 p.m.
What the stars mean:
⋆⋆⋆ Highly recommended
Jon Cheng is the Star Tribune's restaurant critic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at @intrepid_glutton.