A famous gourmand, author named Lu WenFu named Hangzhou LouWaiLou 楼外楼, Suzhou SongHeLou 松鹤楼 and Wuxi YingBinLou 迎宾楼 as the Top 3 “Lous” 中国三大楼. Despite the accolades given to them, YingBinLou closed down in 2004 due to made management.
YingBinLou opened in 1930 by a group of restaurant owners from Nanjing and Beijing, and since these were the capitals of China for centuries, they offered really fantastic range of food from all over China. In fact, they boasted that there was no dish that they cannot cook. And over the next 24 years, luminary’s like Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek and Sung Mei Ling, General Marshall (of the Marshall Plan) and many others graced the halls of YingBinLou. Those were the best of times. This came to a halt during the Civil War in 1954 and reopened in 1959.
However YingBinLou, like many famous and old restaurants in China, was subjected to state ownership when the Communist took over. During the 50-80s, they became part of the institution – common people can come and have a meal for really next to nothing. The quality of the food remained top notch., The real issue? These restaurants were losing money because the crowd was restricted by ration coupons.
Then the economic boom that started in 1978 and over the next 40 years, China experimented with capitalism and free market. Many of these state-owned restaurants were turned over to state-owned companies which did not know how to run a F&B business. Many were ran to the ground. YingBinLou suffered the same fate, and was handed over to the government of Suzhou for management, and the result, as expected, was bankruptcy and closure.
Fast forward to the 21st century, China has more or less figured out what free market meant, and they moved from state-run to state-owned to private enterprise with state investment. Professionals (entrepreneurs who have operated successful F&B businesses) were brought in to operate these century old brands. Hence the new YingBinLou opened in 2014 with a lot of fanfare and expectation. Called it third time lucky, I think they got the formula right this time.
We started dinner with an array of appetisers called 江南八味碟 Eight Tastes of Jiangnan. Besides the usual jellyfish, smoked fish and pickled radish, we have Chinese style goose liver, wood fungus in vinegar, and an assortment of others that represented the different tastes. There’s no rules as to what will be presented, it usually would include a pickled dish 酱菜, a wine-soaked 酒糟 and several umami-laden dishes.
The current owners of YingBinLou kept some of their signature dishes on the menu.
清炒大玉 Sautéed River Shrimp is classic Jiangsu cuisine. The success criteria is that the shrimp must be white like snow. While the taste of the shrimps was fabulous, I can still see the veins (or worse) in some of these shrimps.
芙蓉银鱼 Whitebait in egg white – another classic Jiangsu dish made famous here. Quick sauté of whitebait in egg white with condiments made this a dish that everyone can made but few can perfect. This is perfection right there.
松鼠桂鱼 Sweet and Sour Fish (Squirrel Fish) – this dish has many stories behind it, but the most famous would be one involving Emperor Qianlong. He was walking in Suzhou incognito and came to SongHeLou. He was so hungry and so he walked in and ordered this dish. He loved it so much as it was so different from the usual imperial dishes that featured really expensive ingredients. This dish used only the cheapest fish that was found in the river nearby, the highlight was the technique of slicing the fish, frying it until it looked like the bushy tail of a squirrel, and then topped with the tangy sweet and sour sauce. Of course, the emperor had no money on him to pay and a quarrel ensued. Only days later when the local magistrate sent money to the restaurant did they realise the emperor just ate there.
The YingBinLou version was rated the best among the Top 3 – distinct taste and beautiful presentation, the deep fried fish was placed on the table and then the sauce poured on, producing a cracking sound like chirping squirrels.
镜箱豆腐 Boxed Tofu – doesn’t look much, but it was filled with minced prawns and pork. A bit like our yong tofu.
迎宾红烧肉 Braised Pork Belly – how can a restaurant be one of the Top 3 in Jiangzhe area without an outstanding braised pork belly. Unlike the Shanghai ones, this is sweeter. Unlike the Hangzhou ones, this is firmer. And the saltiness is top above all regions. But Wuxi cuisine is famous for being too oil, too sweet and too salty. And they did it that way over here.
玉兰饼 Magnolia Bun – A beautiful name, this is one of the classic Wuxi breakfast item. A Chinese bun like our own breakfast pork bun, but deep fried. Beat that!
迎宾香酥鸭 Generalissimo Duck – it was called 蒋公香酥鸭 because purportedly Chiang Kai-Shek loved it so much. In short, it was a fork-tender braised duck that was deep fried until the skin was crispy like chicken. Sorry for the photo, the group tore into it before I could take any decent photo. It was so fragrant and everyone could not help it.
And then we had the others.
While they were all good, nothing to shout about, as you can get similar in other places.
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