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.

News
people
Sport
FootballGerman sparks three goals in four minutes at favourite No 10 role
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Sport
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
athletics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Radamel Falcao was forced to withdraw from the World Cup after undergoing surgery
premier leagueExclusive: Reds have agreement with Monaco
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Arts and Entertainment
Gregory Porter learnt about his father’s voice at his funeral
music
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Life and Style
Children at the Leytonstone branch of the Homeless Children's Aid and Adoption Society tuck into their harvest festival gifts, in October 1936
food + drinkThe harvest festival is back, but forget cans of tuna and packets of instant mash
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer Trustee opportunities now available at The Society for Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Volunteer your expertise as Tr...

Early Years Educator

£68 - £73 per day + Competitive rates of pay based on experience: Randstad Edu...

Nursery Nurse

£69 - £73 per day + Competitive London rates of pay: Randstad Education Group:...

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam