Last Friday, Andrew and I were invited by a prominent sushi expert to attend a protest staged by Greenpeace at Nobu in Hollywood. Nobu, Greenpeace contends, is contributing to the demise of an endangered species in offering bluefin tuna on its menu. To better bring this issue to light, the first demonstration was orchestrated at Nobu in New York last week. There, Greenpeace quietly posed as a group of regular diners in order to replace Nobu’s menus and cards with their own featuring entrees made with endangered species: rhinoceros, gorilla, tiger. When the fake menus were spotted by a server, Greenpeace was politely asked to leave. That much was expected, and Greenpeace was actually thoughtful enough to leave tips for the servers to compensate for the fact that no food was ordered.
The same plan was enacted in Hollywood on Friday night. Nobu, being aware of the New York incident, was perhaps a little quicker to show Greenpeace the door. However, as in NY, the initial group did not have the most important job of the evening. Throughout the night, Greenpeace groups dining at Nobu asked servers various questions about the fake menus, about bluefin tuna, and about issues having to do with sustainability. The staff was on its heels all night, as they were unable to distinguish – after the initial group – who was a part of Greenpeace and who was not.
Andrew and I watched from the bar, since we are not proper activists and have our own strategy for changing consumer behavior where seafood is concerned. Personally, I would not have noticed the undercover Greenpeace groups if I had not known what was going on. Even so, Greenpeace achieved the effect it desired – for better or for worse – as I overheard a server cussing about the “…@#$! menus on every #@!$ table…” Later in our meal, as we perused the case at the bar and asked about the yellowfin filet, our server volunteered that it was not bluefin, and that in any case we should not worry because all of their bluefin was farm-raised – just in case we had any concerns about that. That told us two things: that the server had been coached to give a canned answer to all bluefin questions, and that she had little idea of the issues concerning bluefin.
More selfishly, it was an opportunity to have some really good sushi. After all, we do not advocate that people avoid sushi. We just want people to make the responsible choice whenever possible. I had never tried uni (sea urchin roe) in spite of the fact that I spent my graduate career measuring and torturing Strongylocentrotus purpuratus. With a little lemon juice, cilantro, black sea salt, and cucumber: exquisite and rich. In fact, so rich that four bites were about three too many. No problem with that, just bring a friend to share with.
Keeping with the egg theme, we moved on to smelt roe and quail eggs – also extremely rich and buttery. The chef, who by now knew that I was trying a few things for the first time, would set pieces on the counter and step back to watch my reaction. He got a big grin for this one. My favorite by far was the scallop makisushi, shredded and creamy. I could have eaten many, many of those. We did try the yellowfin, which perhaps was not the best example we could set as the Seafood Guys. However, we saw this as an alternative to the bluefin sashimi that was calling to us after a couple of glasses of Asahi. It was unbelievably tender – absolutely melt-on-the-tongue texture. They must age it or something, because it was possibly the best sashimi I’ve ever had.
The service at Nobu, by the way, is excellent. Both the chefs and the servers are attentive and genuinely friendly. It’s too bad that Nobu, as a company, does not do more to preserve the ocean resources upon which it depends. These days, companies repond to factors that affect the bottom line, not to an internal sense of environmental stewardship, and we know that few companies can be expected to take the long-term view into consideration when their short-term survival is at stake. My suggestion is this: pick something else besides bluefin at Nobu or at your own local sushi place. These fish are listed as overfished by NOAA and are difficult to manage, because international cooperation is required for proper oversight of this highly migratory species. Furthermore, the fact that populations are low and that quotas recommendations are being rejected is further undermined by under-reporting of catches. More on this story is told in the new film End of the Line. If you want some good recommendations for sustainable sushi, check out the blog and book here.
My additional recommendation for activists is to petition to add bluefin to the Fish and Wildlife list of endangered or threatened species. Although listed internationally as an endangered species, bluefin is not listed under the Endangered Species Act in the US. If it were, it would be subject to importation restrictions under international CITES oversight. And it seems like a pretty darn good candidate for nomination. So, why not petition to have it added? I personally volunteer to help assemble the supporting biological documentation if other groups will get the signatures. Let’s get together on this – it doesn’t have to be over sushi.