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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Mock the tweet: Ukip leader Nigel Farage and comedian Frankie Boyle
peopleIt was a polite exchange of words, as you can imagine
Life and Style
fashion
Life and Style
Britons buy more than 30 million handsets each year, keeping them for an average of 18 months
tech
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
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

SEN Teaching Assistant needed for long term assignment

£45 - £55 per day: Randstad Education Preston: We are looking for an experienc...

Primary Teachers Required in King's Lynn

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary Teachers needed in King's Ly...

Primary Teachers needed in Ely

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary Teacher needed in the Ely ar...

Teaching Assistant to work with Autistic students

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Randstad Education Leicester ...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain