Mara in Minneapolis aims for the stars

He was always going to rule them all.

When Gavin Kaysen returned to town eight years ago, he graced the Twin Cities with his vision of New American Cuisine (Spoon and Stable) and rooted it in a technique honed by one of the world’s greatest chefs. country (Daniel Boulud) before dazzling guests, five years later, with his intimate church of gastronomy (Demi).

With more pomp and fanfare, Kaysen does it again.

Mara has to look the part, both out of respect for him and his setting, the Four Seasons. Perhaps that’s why the dining room looks like the throne room of what Aladdin might build if he sold some private equity. A floating wall of curtains glistens as the sun sets; velvet cabins, surrounded by walls festooned with gold, are occupied by guests dressed like kings; at dusk, an array of chandeliers cast its bright, aging faces while illuminating what might be the finest dining room in town. An adjoining bar, where the famous Adam Witherspoon cocktail holds court, is equally inviting.

“Who are these people and where are they from?” I ask. Some look like rich people awakened from their hibernation, their faces powdered; some are private wealth managers from the offices above, courting clients; and others are just looking for good food. Or ways to spend their money, quickly. To start, a glass of Dom Pérignon for $125.

Note that there are no extra caviar, nor any sordid attempt to pour truffles over, say, hummus. But there is chicken, for $34.

It arrives half-naked, with a handful of shaved fennel alongside a charred lemon. And you might look like you’ve been stiff if it wasn’t for the fact that this chicken will have you questioning all the precedents you’ve enjoyed. The skill to get it right with so little comes from talent and, more tellingly, the six months that Kaysen and his chef, Thony Yang, spent developing the recipe: a Wild Acres breed, brined overnight, marinated in chermoula spices, grilled through a brick press and brushed with pomegranate molasses. The slightly bitter notes, crispy skin and fervent juiciness made me enraged.

Riffs on the Mediterranean

Mara opened in June, in a hotel chain known for attracting highly decorated chefs from abroad, such as Anne Sophie Pic and Christian Le Squer, both members of the three-star Michelin club. But, with a few exceptions – the late Joël Robuchon, formerly at Four Seasons New York, and Thomas Keller, at Surfside, Florida – the brand has struggled to attract talent to the United States. Kaysen’s concept proves it’s not encumbered by location or label, instead selling the dream of taking you to a posh resort restaurant thousands of miles away.

But without all the splendor, what is Mara?

An exceptional restaurant, to be sure. It engenders almost the same level of excellence that made my visits to Spoon and Stable, Kaysen’s first restaurant, more regular than I could afford. And it pampers you just as much, with a team that glides through the dining room like Balkan dancers.

I will be back for this chicken and I will stay for his other takes inspired by the Mediterranean canon. The lamb shank, almost too glorious for its vessel, is spiced up with isphahan, a spice blend of green cardamom and Omani lemon, a dried lime from the Middle East; and sits on a bed of puy lentils sweetened with dried apricots. Use your fork to scrape it up, and the grease surrenders.

On the lighter end of the spectrum, a watermelon and tomato salad that deftly frames summer is teamed with a creamy feta mousse and a sumac vinaigrette just bright enough to tease without crippling the fruit.

There’s branzino, and it’s twice the price of chicken. But like the precious child you can’t admonish, this one is beyond reproach: clean, soft, tender flesh requiring only a dab or two of charred lemon. Terrific sidekicks (fennel salad, couscous and tzatziki) notwithstanding, at that price I want to see the whole fish, salt crust intact, to avoid the underlying feel of a bait and switch .

Mara conforms to her canon but is not bound by it. Yes, textbook hummus is creamy as ice cream and as umami as it should be; the labneh has the right consistency, and the pitas puff up majestically. But Kaysen’s riffs mean the sobise that fortifies a mushroom edge is accented with turmeric; and the pesto that accompanies a halibut entrée is made with nasturtium, a sweet, peppery leaf.

And when the menu falters — this is a hotel restaurant, after all — it always produces unforgettable dishes.

A dry-aged New York Strip has the sturdiness to justify why its supplier, Peterson Farms, distributes to top restaurants. The kitchen cooks it until it is vermilion, when a thin dark crust develops, then ceremoniously spreads it on a tray, already well rested. It is low in fat but rich in minerality, with a hint of musk. And the agnolotti, a late addition, pair raw sweet corn with woody chanterelles – a combination that may not be new but has made our table rhapsodic.

With more pruning, the “raw and savory” items on the menu could have the same effect. Third wheel sea trout with fennel pollen – it was hard to tell this was a popular fatty Tasmanian variety – and while the lamb tartare was only slightly gamey, an overwhelming marinade l pushed it a bit too far.

The tuna tartare, the best among the crudos, strikes the perfect balance, with its pinch of citrus and the allure of fried shallots. The comparatively austere Spanish mackerel combines small chunks of the lightly dried fish with charred cucumber and a snappy broth to control the richness – a master class in restraint.

The same rigorous standards can be applied alongside Mara. One, the potatoes, is fried to order, giving a crackling armor and a chewy interior that had us shut up. Another, mushrooms, are intensely flavorful. I’m not surprised that the red lentil crackers and black pepper breadsticks eclipsed the lamb tartare and raw ham, respectively. They must be packaged and sold immediately.

A few forgettables

With Yang at the helm – he was one of Kaysen’s trusted lieutenants in Demi – the precision of the kitchen is clearly not lost.

In fact, the only times this is not true are when the transgressions were minor. The pistachio semifreddo was creamy one night but watery another; during brunch an otherwise tasty crab benedict was served with an english muffin which turned soggy and yellow which had congealed by the time it reached our table because it sat on the pass longer than it should ‘should have.

Only a few dishes were forgettable. The halibut was dry both times I tried it, and it came with an eggplant caponata which I found to have a strangely unpleasant flavor. The lobster pasta was al dente and swimming in a flavorful lobster broth, but its sourness made me wince. And a grilled gem salad was buried in what was supposed to be dill pollen crumbs but ate like sand. Also needed more dressing.

Many of the desserts here, courtesy of pastry chef Eddy Dhenin, will be etched in memory. The semifreddo is an impressionistic painting brought to life, with grass-replacing crumble and rich egg custard, deeply lyrical pistachio. Delicately chiseled rose entremets, where the chocolate biscuit, with an airy texture, is bound by a gelled veil of rose syrup and mixed with a strawberry consommé. More compelling is the Chocolate Decadence, with its fluffy layers of dense cake and coffee creaminess alongside an intensely dark, cocoa-like sorbet. The brunch desserts, including a “Croffle” waffle croissant with pistachio ice cream, are enough to attract you at lunchtime, when the light is still flattering, and the savory dishes are an equal match.

Comparisons with other restaurants in Kaysen are inevitable. Spoon and Stable has a wider canvas, while Demi’s environment ensures he can still deliver a four-star dining experience. Mara does not reach such heights.

But it’s very close, more than necessary. On some days when I feel lavish, there’s no place I’d rather be.


⋆⋆⋆ 1/2

Location: 245 Hennepin Avenue S., MPs, 612-895-5709,

Hours: Breakfast 7am-10.30am Mon-Fri, 7am-9.30am Sat-Sun; dinner from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily; brunch Sat.-Sun. 10am-2pm

Prices: Breakfast ranges from pastries ($7) and shakshuka ($19) to a breakfast plate ($21); brunch tops out at $38 for steak and eggs. Dinner is divided into spreads and veggies ($14-$17), raw and savory ($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 led by Adam Witherspoon. Notable favorites (all $15) include a terrific Old Fashioned, the spicy Arrabbiata, and the Arpege, a vodka and gin-based cocktail spiked with jasmine and rose. The non-alcoholic cocktails ($10), making good use of the 3 LECHE products, are not to be missed.

Car park: Valet and paid parking on the street.

To note: The adjoining bar is accessible only and offers a menu of bar bites — the lamb burger and panisse (chickpea fritters) are particularly memorable — but the full menu is also available. The bar opens daily at 2:00 p.m. and starts serving at 5:00 p.m. Mara also caters to the hotel’s bright restaurant, Socca Café, which is open weekdays from 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

What do the stars mean:

⋆⋆⋆⋆ Exceptional

⋆⋆⋆ Highly recommended

⋆⋆ Recommended


Jon Cheng is the Star Tribune’s food critic. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on @intrepid_glutton.