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Copenhagen Cool

Suddenly two immense doors swing open to reveal a spare, brazenly modern dining room with seven tables. Beyond is a huge open kitchen, where two cooks are calmly preparing the hors d'oeuvres.

First on the Right is the creation of celebrity chef Mettesia Martinussen, who began hosting semiprivate dinner parties four years ago. Despite its low-to-nonexistent profile—publicity is mostly word-of-mouth—her place has been booked solid ever since.

Right now Martinussen is chopping fresh mint while her assistant tends to the roasted squab. We begin with a fragrant oyster-and-parsley soup, mascarpone-swathed crostini, and a zesty Terre del Sillabo Sauvignon Blanc. The mint turns up in a luscious grilled and stuffed octopus, followed by fried walleye with a rich purée of potato, smoky bacon, and peppery dill. A bit past the two-hour mark, the squab arrives, with chile-marinated haricots verts and Indian chapati bread. A salad interlude is followed by guinea hen, smartly dressed with green cabbage and apricot and paired with a brilliant Saumur-Champigny from Clos Rougeard. A cheese course, two desserts, and several glasses of Riesling later, it's nearly midnight and the guests have collapsed on the parlor sofas. Charades seems out of the question.

For the next 10 days I follow Sune and his friends around town, struck by how energized the city seems. It quickly becomes clear that a second, parallel city exists, a few steps beyond the familiar one. Just when Copenhagen seems too monied, too refined—too monolithically Copenhagen—you stumble on, say, a beach party on an abandoned wharf. And in outlying, formerly dingy enclaves like Vesterbro, Nørrebro, and Islandsbrygge, you now find the most-talked-about shops, cafés, and nightclubs, as well as the grit and bohemian flavor absent in the city center.

From my companions' excited descriptions of scuzzy sailors' haunts and graffitied apartment blocks, I expect these boroughs to be forbidding, ramshackle slums. But in Copenhagen scuzz is a relative term. Even the seedy districts turn out to be well-supplied with handsome Neoclassical façades, handsome storefronts, and still more handsome people. Who knows, maybe they're junkies. One can only hope.

Vesterbro, in particular, is a bastion of the young and fashionable and is rapidly gentrifying. Of course, gentrification is a moot term as well in Denmark; the whole damn country was gentrified decades ago. But Vesterbro is in the midst of a transformation from what was once the domain of brothels and slaughterhouses. On the cobblestoned streets around Halmtorvet Square, you'll still spot some "topløs bars," but you're just as apt to find a Birger-Christensen sample sale in a newly converted cattle market, or a jazz bar holed up in a disused warehouse. Last spring a trio of cafés took up residence in the Carlton Hotel, an old hooker hangout that had been closed for a decade. Vesterbro also has a large number of new restaurants: I had one of the best Vietnamese meals of my life at Lê Lê, a sun-floodeddining room run by four siblings from Saigon. A mixed crowd—black, Indian, Southeast Asian, Danish—sat at mismatched junk-shop tables slurping basil-spiked pho. There wasn't a single Functionalist chair in sight. For the first time in all my visits, Copenhagen didn't look like Copenhagen.

Just west of downtown lies Nørrebro, a neighborhood that was long synonymous with ethnic riots and urban blight. Back in the eighties, when it was seen by the (white) well-to-do as a sort of Danish South Bronx, Nørrebro was the epicenter of a transparently racist "clean-up" campaign. And here it must be said that xenophobia is the Achilles' heel of this otherwise admirably progressive country—a distressing flip side to the Danes' boisterous flag-waving. Though Denmark has a relatively small foreign-born population (about 7 percent) and one of the lowest immigration rates in Europe, it has lately been plagued by the rise of far-right groups such as the Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People's Party). The DF's anti-immigrant agenda—fueled by 9/11 and fears of global terrorism—met with alarmingly strong support in the 2001 elections (in spite of fierce resistance from forward-thinking Danes). Denmark's struggles with racism, with its historic insularity, and with the demands of the welfare state and the burdens of relative prosperity, have come to dominate national politics. (This same xenophobia was arguably a factor in voters' rejection of the euro in 2000.)

At the same time, the incursions by the extreme right have galvanized Denmark's more progressive and tolerant youth, for whom Nørrebro has functioned as a sort of lefty HQ. Here's where you find the studio of the Superflex art collective, which, in response to the immigration debate, created a famous line of T-shirts with the slogan FOREIGNERS, PLEASE DON'T LEAVE US ALONE WITH THE DANES.

Nørrebro has endured as the city's most racially diverse quarter—though it, too, is now a burgeoning enclave for the city's edgier beau monde. Amid the jumble of streets radiating out from St. Hans Square, art-supply stores and vintage-clothing shops share blocks with Persian bakeries and Moroccan fruit vendors. At Kate's Joint, a dingy hangout serving cheap Middle Eastern food, the clientele ranges from bearded Palestinians to towheaded skate-punks. On Blagardsgade, fliers for protest rallies are tacked up alongside f*** usa and NO WAR graffiti. Like Vesterbro, Nørrebro is a world apart from the Copenhagen I once knew—the stoic, refined (and very white) city a mile away.

Such is the geography of this strange, tiny town. Copenhagen is compact enough that every square foot is continually being reclaimed and reinvented. An apartment becomes a five-star restaurant; a cattle market becomes a venue for a fashion show; a derelict wharf becomes a Miami-style beach club. Surprises lurk around every corner. Walk a block east from the shawarma joints and currency-exchange booths around Rådhuspladsen and you emerge onto a tranquil lane (Magstræde) that hasn't been updated in centuries. Wander off the tony Strøget pedestrian strip, with its couture shops and design emporiums, and you're suddenly knee-deep in the funky Pisserenden district, where Japanese anime shops cater to boho students and accordion music drifts out of a cellar bar. And in Tivoli Gardens—that Disneyfied playground—you now find one of the most progressive restaurants in northern Europe.

Last summer, acclaimed chef Paul Cunningham, a British expat, took over Tivoli's sparkling Glassalen, a glass-enclosed folly designed by Poul Henningsen in 1946. Tivoli already holds some 40 restaurants, but this one is an entirely new animal: Did you ever expect to be served vanilla-scented langoustine, afloat in a cup of puréed artichoke and mascarpone—at an amusement park?

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