The gourmet date: Was it love at first bite?

by Tim Hornyak

Special To The Japan Times

Want to impress on a first date? Try the following: dress to the nines, bring a gift — and get a table at the world’s best restaurant halfway around the world.

That’s just what San Francisco’s Stephanie Robesky did last month when she pulled off the date of a lifetime: dinner for two at a Tokyo popup edition of Noma, the Danish eatery ranked top in the world in recent years by Restaurant magazine. The all-in trip cost? Upwards of $10,000.

The technology entrepreneur’s reservation request beat those of thousands of other hopefuls vying for a seat at Noma’s temporary incarnation at the Mandarin Oriental hotel. But then she found that she didn’t have a date with whom to share the experience, which fell on her 39th birthday. What to do? She did what any savvy Bay Area person would do — turn to the Internet.

“I had an idea when I woke up in the middle of the night,” says Robesky. “I thought, ‘Since I have this reservation and no one’s going with me, maybe I should just put it on my Nerd Girl blog. It might be funny and if I get a few responses, it’ll be cool.’ ”

About 550 men responded to her blog post, which began as a sheer whim. It asked for would-be Romeos to submit their profiles and a questionnaire for an epic encounter in Japan. The lucky bachelor would have to pay for his won accomodation and his airfare to and from Tokyo. Robesky then vetted a select few in person, limiting their chats to an hour in a cafe.

But with one guy, that time somehow stretched into four hours. Jeff Hull, a game designer from Oakland, got the golden invite.

“We just hit it off within the first 10 minutes of sitting and talking. We were immersed in conversation,” Robesky says. “He has a great sensor of humor, he’s really intelligent and he’s super easy to talk to. His application was also very humble, straightforward and honest.”

A global gastronaut who’s dined at Noma in Copenhagen, Robesky isn’t your typical frustrated online-date-site user. After a stint at early Web browser Netscape, she had worked in different cities across the U.S. and Europe over the years, including a project manager gig at Skype, before taking some time to deal with lupus, an autoimmune disorder that requires chemotherapy treatment. When she was ready to get into the dating scene again, she tried an online dating site, but found it too fake. Ironically, however, the Internet brought her together with Jeff.

After they hit it off at the coffee shop, they were soon exchanging pre-dinner gifts: flowers for her and treats for his dog (who said the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach?). Then came the big night at Noma. Chef Rene Redzepi, known for his exotic fare, didn’t disappoint. On the menu: uni (sea urchin) nestled in cabbage, shrimp sashimi sprinkled with ants, and a whole roast duck.

“They gave the head to me, which was sawed in half,” Robesky laughs. “They said, ‘Just pick it up and suck the brain out.’ I can’t say it was the most romantic thing I’ve eaten.”

Wine and conversation flowed, their mutual interest deepened and the meal was followed by a birthday cake, mercifully insect-free. Altogether, the date was “a resounding success and more than I could have hoped for,” Robesky says. The bill was somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,400.

The pair spent the next few days exploring Tokyo and noshing on sushi at Sukiyabashi Jiro in Roppongi Hills before a side trip to see the snow monkeys of Nagano. While the highlights of the trip went smoothly, they found that businesses in Japan can be frustratingly inflexible. On several occasions they showed up at lesser-known eateries in Tokyo only to be told that they were just about to close. But that didn’t put a dint in their fun.

To fly back to the Bay Area, Hull paid for Robesky to have her ticket changed so they could travel together. And they’re still dating. They spend the weekends together, slowly getting to know each other better, and are already planning their next caper: What to do with all the Romeos who didn’t make the cut. Robesky thinks a dinner party with 20 of them and an equal number of her single girlfriends might be the perfect way to turn her hastily composed blog post into something more than just one relationship. Robesky cheekily calls it “Dinner with the leftovers.” Hull, who owns a “situational design agency” called Nonchalance, has volunteered to host. It may be a night to remember, but there’s no way it will top their date in Tokyo.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do for my 40th,” Robesky laughs. “I’m just going to have to stay home.”