Cunningham claims he was too self-conscious to name the restaurant after himself: "Calling it Paul would have been terribly arrogant, no?" Instead he named it The Paul. "See," he says, "now it has that second element—'the'—to give it some distance from myself." The Englishman admits he's perplexed by the innate modesty of the Danes. "People here don't like to make a big deal of themselves," he says. "But why aim for four stars when you want five?"
It certainly takes chutzpah to decorate your restaurant with framed menus from Gordon Ramsay and Manoir aux Quat' Saisons. Occupying pride of place on the chef's table is Ferran Adrià's massive El Bulli cookbook, glowing like a Gutenberg Bible. Cunningham is effusive about Adrià's mad-scientist alchemy: "How can you not be wowed by him?I was at El Bulli a few months ago and he served us 'foam of ash.' We were literally eating smoke! Cooking is about theater. Look out the windows—we're next door to a magic show! We need to entertain people."
It's hard not to be entertained by the revolution under way in Copenhagen's kitchens. Danish chefs are hard at play, reconceiving every ingredient with outrageous results. Wild garlic takes the form of a gelée, escargots are whipped into foam, parsley emerges as a grainy sorbet. It's only a matter of time before smørrebrød with liver paste is rendered into a pungent vapor and served through an oxygen mask. But let's not give them any ideas.
Later that week Sune and I pedal over to K Bar, a sultry den specializing in cocktails, still a rarity in lager-loving Copenhagen. It's here that I meet René Redzepi, another of the city's preeminent chefs. René looks far too trim to be a cook—a blond Paul Rudd. He honed his craft at El Bulli and at French Laundry, and now he's heading up the restaurant at the just-opened North Atlantic House cultural center, across the harbor in Christianshavn. Everyone in town has been raving about the complex, so the next afternoon I bike over to take a look.
North Atlantic House was carved out of an 18th-century gray-brick warehouse, replete with pinewood beams and a pitched red-tiled roof. The space now contains the representatives of Iceland, Greenland, and the Faeroe Islands, along with halls devoted to Nordic art and culture. That theme dominates the menu at Noma, where René is shirking olive oil and sun-dried tomatoes in favor of sugar beets and Greenland musk ox (quite tasty, incidentally).
It's stunning, and all the more appealing for its de-fiantly retro setting. Just when you couldn't take another hypermodern façade— like the ruthlessly minimalist Black Diamond library, onthe waterfront—North Atlantic House reminds you of what Copenhagen was before form followed function: a city of brick, cobblestones, and wind-scarred wood, a maritime town of rusty piers and narrow canals.
In the old quarter of Christianshavn, with its canal- side cafés, pastel edifices, and retrofitted houseboats, that era endures. Here, and in the nearby districts along the harbor, Copenhagen is rediscovering the glories of its waterfront. The much anticipated Copenhagen Opera House will open next year on the former naval base at Holmen. Condos and high-tech firms are already ensconced in old U-boat assembly plants. In Islandsbrygge, an industrial area laced with freight rails and ringed by abandoned docks, galleries are opening, and families are moving into neglected lofts. The atmosphere recalls TriBeCa in the mid eighties.
But the real action is on (and in) the water itself. As soon as the temperature climbs, in May, out come the café tables, the heat lamps, the Jacobsen ashtrays; off go the woolen coats and on go the swim trunks. Luftkastellet is, it turns out, only one of several beach clubs to spring up lately around town—some legal, some not so legal. Some might not last the season. Some will simply move down the harbor to another dilapidated wharf.
There's always another wharf, and a crowd to please. Sand is shipped in from Jutland, pétanque courts are laid out, sound systems set up, and suddenly all of Copenhagen is jumping into the harbor, blissed out and beautiful under the hazy northern sun.
No, this just isn't right at all.
PETER JON LINDBERG is an editor-at-large for Travel + Leisure.