After more than two decades, A’Float Sushi in Old Pasadena still has that magic — a nautical variant of the sushi-go-round restaurants common in Japan, relatively novel in the LA area and unique in Pasadena.
Nevertheless, if the means of delivery were only a gimmick and the product substandard, A’Float would have sunk a long time ago. Not to worry — the restaurant holds its own with other local sushi emporia and provides the extra enjoyment of watching a continuous flotilla of seafood-laden ships from harborside.
The concept is simple: sushi chefs are ensconced within an oblong bar ringed with seats. Diners have a clear view of them as they practice their art, theatrically fashioning the complex, colorful fish creations we’ve come to know and love. Then, instead of putting the sushi in front of a specific diner, they float the fish on a never-ending regatta of wooden boats (each about a foot and a half long) wending their way around a small, water-filled canal that forms the inner rim of the bar.
Instead of (or in addition to) ordering sushi á la carte or by whim, diners have the option of waiting until something appealing comes floating by and unloading the boat’s cargo. Once you’ve got some wasabi and pickled ginger by your side, it’s a cinch to select your meal — no waiting for a busy chef to get around to making that California roll for you.
Even more clever is the formula A’Float Sushi uses for figuring out what you owe when you’re ready to leave the pier. Their rectangular ceramic plates come in six different designs. Each designates a different price. Borrowing a Chinese dim sum restaurant technique, they count the number and pattern of plates you’ve piled up by the end of your meal, multiply and add. Voila, your total! Add a tip, and you’re done.
Some of the more complex rolls come in servings of three or four pieces rather than the usual six — but the price reflects the reduction in quantity and allows the diner to sample a greater variety of sushi before surfeit and poverty set in. On our first waterfront luncheon back in 1997, we amassed a stack of dishes but a bill of only $25.
Last month, gorging on achingly tender yellowtail and salmon augmented by smelt egg, octopus, halibut, gyoza, crunchy, piping hot shrimp tempura and warm, red bean paste-filled sesame balls, we were amazed to find our 20-plate extravaganza cost a mere $45. And since we had snagged the best seats in the house we got to watch the superb sushi chef ply his craft close-up for over an hour.
Seating logistics at the bar are important, but not just for the view. Boats float counterclockwise. Thus, the most advantageous positioning, to get first choice of the newly floating creations, is directly starboard (right, for you landlubbers) of the chef. If you wind up port, you’ll be left with rejects. We once watched a pair of surf clams go round and round like unclaimed luggage at the airport.
Also take heed: if you rely completely on serendipity you might be disappointed when favorites don’t appear. But, except when the restaurant is extremely busy, requests for more unusual items like honey walnut shrimp tempura roll (four pieces – $4.68) or custom sashimi are readily accommodated. On the other hand, on our most recent visit a three piece shrimp tempura/crab roll ($3.18) and a six-piece salmon/green onion roll ($3.98) hove into view unexpectedly and turned out to be real treasures.
Special rolls, such as dragon, rainbow or caterpillar rarely float around by chance, but each of them can be had for $8.99. Sashimi plates range from $6.58 for any of 10 different fishes to $17.95 for 11 assorted pieces and $34.95 for a 22-piece chef’s selection. Again, don’t expect to salvage these platters without a specific order.
There are lots of additional things on A’Float’s menu, but many come by land rather than sea. Among others, beef, chicken or salmon teriyaki, tempura (with or without shrimp), tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlet) and saba shioyaki (broiled mackerel) are available with soup, salad and rice.
Chirashi sushi, udon, chicken ramen and other traditional items are listed under an extensive “side order and specials” menu section. I take the word “side” literally since there are plenty of tables to each side of the sushi bar and at the front of the restaurant for customers who prefer to skip the boat show and order from the printed list.
Frankly, we’ve never done it. Why would we when the main point of visiting A’Float is the fun of waiting for your ship to come in and “fishing” at the water’s edge for unexpected catches?
So, if you’re dreaming of a week in Hawaii but can’t get away, you might want to take a short seaside vacation from pedestrian dining at A’Float Sushi.
A version of this story appeared in our July 20, 2017 edition. All prices have been updated.
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