Oscar-winner directs sting on Hollywood's favourite sushi spot

Guy Adams visits the restaurant which is under investigation for serving up whale to its high-end clients

"Is this the whale?" joked a noisy patron, pointing to some dark red slabs of tuna on the small tray of sushi, which had just been deposited on his table at one of California's renowned sushi restaurants "Come on guys, it's your signature dish! Where's it gone? I'm feeling left out here!"

His waitress wasn't laughing. Hours earlier, the small, exclusive venue, called The Hump, had found itself at the centre of an explosive culinary scandal that has thrown an awkward spotlight on practices at one of America's top sushi spots.

A New York Times report claimed that chefs at the restaurant, which overlooks the runway at Santa Monica airport and has a dedicated pilot's page on its website, were under investigation for allegedly serving endangered whale meat to high-end customers.

A raid on the restaurant was the climax of a secret sting operation mounted for several months by the makers of The Cove, the documentary that won an Oscar for its hard-hitting portrayal of the Japanese dolphin-fishing industry.

Armed with hidden cameras and zip lock bags, and accompanied by federal agents and activists, the controversial film's director, Louie Psihoyos, visited the restaurant and, for the princely sum of $60, was served slices of a meaty fish described by the waiter as "kujira." That's Japanese for whale.

When the dishes were DNA-tested, it turned out that they came from Sei whale, a threatened species which is found worldwide, but hunted under Japan's allegedly "scientific" whale-fishing programme.

The restaurant's premises were duly raided by the police last Friday. Prosecutors now say its chefs and owners will face charges of breaking US law regarding the sale of marine mammals; if found guilty, they could be fined up to $20,000 (£13.300) and sent to prison for a year.

A spokesman for The Hump has refused to comment on the allegations, but in a city where the animal rights culture is as entrenched as the culture of eating small and expensive portions of raw fish, the scandal seems unlikely go away.

News crews from ABC and NBC were parked outside on Tuesday, interviewing would-be customers. The local chapter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) is planning a weekend of protests.

Adding to the public's interest in the case is the small restaurant's devotedly A-list clientele. Santa Monica airport is for private flights only, and is one of the most convenient locations in Los Angeles for landing a Gulfstream jet.

As a result, almost every Hollywood star and movie industry mogul uses the airport, and Julia Roberts, Steven Spielberg, John Travolta and Tom Cruise are regularly spotted there.

For high-end travellers, The Hump, on the terminal's top floor, provides a welcome taste of luxury – but not a cheap one. The Omakase menu, in which "truly adventurous" customers "entrust your entire dining experience to our chefs", comes in at slightly over $300-a-head.

This was the menu on which the apparent "kujira" was sold, according to the waitress who served me. "Chef had been getting it from Japan for a few months, to serve to people who wanted adventure," she said. "I'm not supposed to talk about it, but since the police came on Friday, we are no longer serving it."

A disclaimer on the menu now reads: "Much of the product utilised by our chefs is very rare and often difficult to obtain. With that being said, certain items might also be quite expensive."

Among the other more adventurous offerings featured on the main menu was Ike-Birame, a "live fluke" which cost $9 for two pieces. Tenen Unagi, or "live freshwater eel" was $18. The waitress explained that it wasn't actually served alive, but kept swimming round a tank in the kitchen, and was killed moments before it was cooked, for maximum freshness.

Both were delicious, as were accompanying portions of the few items on the menu that could, at a push, be considered sustainable. The Alaskan salmon had the texture of butter. Michael Winner might have declared the Albacore tuna "historic." Yet, thanks to the picket-line of TV crews outside, only three of the 20-odd tables were occupied.

In her restaurant's defence, the waitress claimed that the practice of serving whale, a dark, oily and intensely flavoured fish, is widespread. The Hump was simply unlucky to get caught. "Are people angry? Yes. Is it fair? No," she said "Most of the top sushi restaurants in this city, and around the world, will serve whale, if you just ask. It is part of Japanese culture, and quite easy to get hold of. How else do you think we got it delivered?" For the angry animal rights lobby, that's one question that can't be answered soon enough.

Voices
Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond delivers his speech at the Scottish National Party (SNP) Spring Conference in Aberdeen, Scotland April 12, 2014.
voices
Arts & Entertainment
Jessica Pare as Megan Draper and Jon Hamm as the troubled, melancholy Don Draper
tvAnd six other questions we hope Mad Men series seven will answer
Life & Style
The new low cost smartphone of Motorola, 'Motorola Moto G', is displayed in Sao Paulo, Brazil on November 13, 2013. The smartphone, with dimensions 65.9mm W x 129.9mm H x 6.0 - 11.6mm D is equipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 with quad-core 1,2 GHz CPU, a 4.5-inch display and Android Operating System 4.3 and a suggested price of $ 179 USD.
techData assessing smartphones has revealed tens of millions of phones are at risk of being harvested
News
David Beckham is planning to build a stadium in Miami’s port for a new football team he will own
news... in his fight for a football stadium in Miami's port area
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
weird newsMan live-photographs cracking of mysterious locked box on Reddit
Sport
Oliver Giroud kisses the Arsenal badge after giving the Gunners the lead
sportArsenal 3 West Ham 1: Two goals from the German striker and one piece of brilliance from Giroud puts the Gunners back above Everton
News
Plans to decriminalise non-payment of television licence fees would cost the BBC £500m according to estimates drawn up within the Corporation
people
News
weird news
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
filmAs 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star James Dean perfected his moody act
News
Obesity surgery in rats has been found to change the way the body processes alcohol
news
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
artThe Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
Life & Style
US Airways has been at the centre of a Twitter storm after it responded to customer complaints with a graphic sexual image
techUS Airways takes an interesting approach to customer service
Arts & Entertainment
Philip Arditti as Yossarian and Christopher Price as Milo Minderbinder in Northern Stage's 'Catch-22'
theatre
Arts & Entertainment
The Purple Wedding: Joffrey and Margaery Tyrell tie the knot
TV The second episode of the hit series featured a surprise for viewers
Life & Style
Back to nature: women with body issues have found naked yoga sessions therapeutic
lifeDoing poses in the altogether is already big in the US, and now it’s landed here – in mixed classes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Move from Audit to Advisory

£45000 per annum + benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: Move from Audit to Advisor...

Management Consultancy - Operational Research Analysts

£35000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus + Benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: You must ...

Secondary Teaching Assistant

£60 - £70 per day: AER Teachers: THE SCHOOL: This outstanding Secondary School...

Application Support Analyst (MS SQL, java based webserver, batch scripting)

£36000 - £40000 Per Annum On call allowance.: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
Supersize art

Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
James Dean: Back on the big screen

James Dean: Back on the big screen

As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
10 best activity books for children

10 best activity books for children

Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

Politicians urged to find radical solution
Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

Ukraine crisis

How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

A history of the First World War in 100 moments
Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?