Pride of place isn’t confined to entrepreneurs. In 1991, the City of San Antonio, Texas, reached across the border and hired the innovative architect Ricardo Legorreta to design a dramatic new library. Since then, municipalities around America have cast their nets ever wider in their quest for iconic landmarks that can alter outside perception of their cities. In rapid succession, Cincinnati chose the Pritzker Prize winner Zaha Hadid for its Contemporary Art Center, Fort Worth commissioned a light-filled Modern Art Museum from Japan’s Tadao Ando, and Milwaukee picked Spain’s Santiago Calatrava for its own art museum on the Lake Michigan waterfront. I flew to Milwaukee recently to watch the giant wings of Calatrava’s remarkable creation flap, as they’re meant to do three times daily, but excessive wind canceled the show. Still, even seeing it in such straitened circumstances, I can understand how that building is affecting Milwaukee the way Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim did Bilbao. “The committee said to put Milwaukee on the map for arts and culture,” says Elysia Borowy-Reeder, a curator and marketer for the museum. “Well, we did. The people who want to see this have to come here.” Last year, when Milwaukee’s symphony orchestra landed a top conductor (Edo de Waart, who has guided such ensembles in San Francisco and Hong Kong), the museum received much of the credit.
When I’m home in Boulder, i make weekly visits to Sushi Tora, which overnights fish from Tokyo’s Tsukiji market. They serve tuna and mackerel, but also rarities such as kochi (flathead), kinmedai (golden-eye snapper), and kamasu (barracuda), and the occasional cod milt, sea cucumber, and firefly squid. Friends who pass through are amazed at the range and freshness of the selection. “The miracle of FedEx,” I tell them.
So I should have been prepared for Salt Lake City’s Takashi when I visited earlier this year. I’d checked in to the Grand America Hotel, which looks like the parliament of a small European nation. Its unflappable employees, stationed at every corner, are outnumbered only by its chandeliers. I’d never had a memorable meal in the city, and probably held the same patronizing attitude that some friends and colleagues have about the entire time zone. But seated under a 30-foot steel fish that arcs over Takashi’s bar, I enjoyed some of the finest sushi of my life. Not extravagantly architected maki rolls leaking mayonnaise, but the real stuff, tai and kohada and mirugai, paired with seasonal namazake sakes that are usually found only in Japan. “Little by little, they understand,” said Takashi Gibo, the owner, who was sitting at a nearby table with his wife. “We teach, they learn.”
I’ve also come to appreciate food from over the next hill. An exceptional meal once meant caviar and truffles shipped in from distant lands. But now that every Safeway is crammed with foodstuffs from Chile to China, the new extravagance is produce that hasn’t ever felt the numbing chill of refrigeration, let alone traversed an ocean. That’s where American towns and cities of almost any size can really shine. “Twenty years ago, you couldn’t get anything from here except potatoes and cabbage,” says chef Lisa Carlson of Minneapolis’s Spoonriver, which relies almost entirely on a network of local growers. “Now we get almost everything.” Recently, I had an astonishing meal at Blu, outside Traverse City, Michigan. The feel was old-school: plates of food that resembled the Battle of the Marne, with the vegetables and potatoes entrenched on one side and a slab of meat holding down the other. But the ingredients were all gathered within 30 miles of where I sat, from the Norconk Farms asparagus in the soup to the Deer Tracks venison. I tasted terroir as surely as in any wine.