Two weeks ago, there was a dance in the kitchen at Mara.

The Mediterranean restaurant, which opens tonight in the newest tower to dot the Minneapolis skyline, has been rehearsing for weeks, long before guests who managed to get prized reservations even set foot through the gilded archways that separate Mara from its home within the Four Seasons Minneapolis.

"This is not normal," said Gavin Kaysen, chef and owner of Mara and other A-list Minneapolis restaurants Spoon and Stable and Demi, under the umbrella of his company Soigné Hospitality.

"At Spoon, we had maybe two days. At Demi, it didn't happen," he said. But with the resources — and expectations — of a luxury brand behind him, getting Mara right would be paramount.

Kaysen watched the chefs shuffling and gliding around each other, while one cook rotated meat on the grill like hands of a clock, setting the pace for the rest of the meal — when the fish should go in the pan and when the bucatini should go on the plate. They were essentially practicing the choreography of service, with chef de cuisine Thony Yang as director, and Kaysen something like the executive producer and dashing leading man all in one.

Kaysen walked over to the kitchen and stood in front of a stainless-steel table lined with just-finished plates of octopus a la plancha, grilled spatchcocked chicken, Spanish seafood stew and more. The dance was over, and everyone circled around Kaysen, some standing on their tippy toes to see his reactions, hungry for approval. He made some final touches, spooning a sauce over one dish, taking a bite of the pasta (at his peril, by the way; he has Celiac disease), suggesting more salt. He sliced off a nub of steak. "It's good," he said to his small audience.

What's it like to have all eyes on you — from your staff to the city at large — on the eve of one of the most anticipated restaurant openings since the pandemic? Kaysen couldn't tell you.

"I didn't even look up," he said. "I was just thinking about the food."

Kaysen has some experience with buzzy restaurant openings, from his time as second-in-command at Daniel Boulud's restaurants in New York, Toronto and Palm Beach, and his announcement, in 2014, that he would be leaving Boulud's restaurant group to come home to Minneapolis and launch his own.

His first local outing, Spoon and Stable, was an instant hit that has since become part of the fabric of the North Loop and the greater Twin Cities dining scene. It was clear from the time reservations opened and booked months out that Kaysen was giving Minneapolis something it desperately wanted.

"That gravitational pull, how people felt when we were opening was impossible to ignore," he said. "I didn't read a lot of stuff because I didn't want to believe it one way or the other, but I couldn't help but feel it every single night."

In 2019, Kaysen opened Demi, a 20-seat tasting-menu-only spot that, despite its outside-the-box formula, was one of the hardest-to-get, and most expensive, reservations in the city. Three years later, Demi-style dinners are everywhere.

In most national articles about the Twin Cities restaurant world and its recent, rapid elevation, Kaysen's name is part of the conversation. Kaysen, who was named the best chef in the Midwest in 2018 by the James Beard Foundation, is proud of his contribution to making his hometown dining scene something to talk about.

"I'm certain that we had something to do with it," he said. "And ultimately, I think everybody genuinely wants to be better, but when you have the majority of all the restaurants training everybody at a very high level, it makes the town a better food town. And that's what we want, right?"

Now he's at it again with the opening of Mara, the culmination of a three-year plan with the Four Seasons to give Minneapolis a restaurant worthy of an ultra-luxe five-star property. (Rooms start at $525 per night.)

"It's not easy," said Chris Nye, executive chef of Soigné Hospitality. "The standards are definitely higher than probably every other restaurant in the city."

And the pressure is coming from all sides. There are the people who want Mara to succeed, who want Minneapolis to gain further national, and even international, recognition for its culinary talent. And there are the people who want to see it falter, who don't think it belongs here, whether because they believe it's too fancy or too pretentious, or who think Minneapolis doesn't deserve it.

If anyone could respond to both of those camps with one restaurant, it's Kaysen, who proved that Twin Cities restaurants could change the mold and draw national attention. And whose years in New York, perhaps, showed him how to shake off that ingrained Midwestern modesty.

"I was talking to somebody yesterday, and he said — such a perfect Minnesotan — 'I can't believe we're getting a Four Seasons in Minnesota.' And I said, 'St. Louis has a Four Seasons. They've had one for five years.' Come on! We deserve it."

This love-it-or-hate-it view of Mara burst into the public a full week before the restaurant even opened. When the reservation system launched on May 23, someone — Kaysen doesn't know or care who — unchecked a box that basically allowed people to reserve an unlimited number of tables in the same time slots. Thirty-six minutes after reservations opened, Kaysen checked the app, Tock, and saw 4,690 covers had been booked, at a restaurant that seats 96 people. For the first Saturday night, 349 tables were reserved within one hour of each other. They were up to 6,200 guests by the time Tock shut the system off.

The next day, would-be diners got e-mails alerting them that their reservations had been canceled and they would have to try again. Many of them were not happy about it. But when reservations reopened, Mara was the second-most visited page on all of Tock.

In the e-mail, there was a link to a video with a smiling Kaysen thanking everyone for overloading the restaurant with reservations. It was not an apology.

"What am I gonna say? Mistakes happen, so there's nothing I can do," he said. "I think back in my earlier days, I probably would have been so mad, that I wouldn't have been able to articulate a sentence to make a video, let alone speak to 15 people for 12 hours about what we're going to do. But it was totally out of my hands."

Harder than rebooking frustrated guests, Kaysen said, was knowing the pressure was growing. That even after the runaway successes of his past restaurants, he still had something to prove.

"What's unfortunate now is that there's already this hype, this expectation. If that was here before" — he lifted his hand at eye level — "and then it was here when they got reservations" — he raised it above his head — "I'm not tall enough to keep going on. So you know you're going to find disappointment. You know people are going to come in and their level of expectation is so high that it might be unachievable for us to even get to that point," he said. "We don't own that power."

It's not only about expectation, but also aspiration. After the last couple years — with the pandemic holding on, inflation hammering families, war in Europe and turmoil at home, and Minneapolis still in recovery mode — five-star hotel dining under Murano glass chandeliers in a gleaming downtown tower is out of reach for many Minnesotans. Yet for others, it's a refuge.

Kaysen is mindful of the tonal conflict between what's outside the Four Seasons' doors and the handsomely appointed bar and dining room within.

"I think restaurants are still supposed to be restorative," he said. At friends and family service last week, he talked to every guest, and the majority of them told him that being at Mara reminded them of being in another place. Maybe the south of France, Kaysen's inspiration for this restaurant. Or maybe another city with a Four Seasons hotel.

"They've removed themselves from where they were to be here and be fully present in the space. When you build restaurants, that's one of the best compliments you can get," Kaysen said. "Because at the end of the day, to build a restaurant like this or any restaurant, it's a huge risk. And to be able to put your neck out there to take that type of a risk, I'm not asking for a pat on the back or a party or a reward for any of it. To get people to come in and tell me that they feel right in the space because of it? That fills my soul."

Dining at the Four Seasons

With the opening of Four Seasons Hotel Minneapolis (245 Hennepin Av., Mpls.) on June 1, comes several dining options.

Mara: Gavin Kaysen has launched the Mediterranean restaurant serving breakfast and dinner, with brunch and lunch coming soon. The dinner menu offers spreads ($14 and up), vegetables ($12 and up), raw and cured items ($12 and up), pasta ($30-$34) and a selection of dishes from the land and sea (starting at $32). Desserts start at $12.

Mara Bar: A lounge features $15 cocktails and nonalcoholic offerings by Adam Witherspoon and small plates for $15 and up. No reservations needed.

Socca Café: Also by Kaysen, Socca Café in the RBC Wealth Management lobby is a casual, window-filled espresso bar with grab-and-go salads and sandwiches, plus pastries, cookies and cakes. It's open to the public.

Riva Terrace: The Four Seasons' other restaurant, Riva Terrace, helmed by the hotel's executive chef Martín Morelli, also opens June 1 on the pool deck to hotel guests for lunch and to the public for dinner.

Want to know what it's like to dine at Mara? Check back for our story on Friday, June 3.