The Ling Family owned many of the properties in Tongli and they have got together to refurnished many of the properties, turning them into bed and breakfast, restaurants and this crowning glory – the Yiyuan Garden Hotel.
While there’s the more up-market private fine dining experience next door at Hall of Providence, the Ling Family Private Dining is a sampler of the dishes that they prepare at home as “normal” dining.
Four Appetisers 冷菜四品
When we arrived, the four appetisers were already waiting for us. As the tea and drinks were served, we nibbled on the appetisers. They were not meant to be finished like the main courses, but I really enjoyed the deep fried yellow croakers 酥炸小黄鱼, which remained crispy even though they were already stone cold. The sweet lotus root 糖藕 was, well really sweet， while the remaining two appetisers – smoked duck 烟熏鸭 and vinegar cucumbers 凉拌黄瓜 – were forgettable.
Suzhou-Style Stewed Pork Belly 苏式酱方
Suzhou-style stewed pork belly uses a whole slab of pork belly and stew it whole. The technique requires the slow rendering of the fats and skins the final gelatinous state and it is much more difficult than the usual Dongpo version. And the style is less sweet than its cousin, the Wuxi-style stewed pork belly.
River Shrimp in Brine 盐水河虾
No culinary skill required for this dish, just really fresh shrimps from the nearby lakes. Tongli is blessed with its proximity to the waterways and crab farms around the area, so the residents have for generations been able to use these fresh produce in their dishes. And the purpose of this dish is just to enjoy the sweetness of the river shrimp.
Stir-Fry River Shrimp with Gorgon Fruits 鸡头米手剥虾仁
The weather that day was really a cool 10˚C and the food went cold very quickly. It would be fantastic when warm, but the cold weather made the shrimp tasted limp.
Stewed Salted Radish with Pork Belly 咸萝卜焖肉
The radish in this dish was salted in house and not really that salty, and by stewing it with the pork belly, became really delicious with the naturally sweetness of the radish with the satisfying fats of the pork belly.
Sweet and Sour Mandarin Fish 松鼠桂鱼
This is literally translated as “Squirrel Mandarin Fish” but it became the favourite fish dish among the foreigners. Take a mandarin fish and excellent knife work, deep fry the fish dusted with flour and then smoother a sweet and sour sauce on it. It turned the usually not-so-fresh fish into a wonderful dish. Here, the sauce was perfectly done and enhanced with river shrimp, which was totally unnecessary in my opinion – the shrimp that is.
Gluten Braised with Salted Pork and Beef Bones 面筋咸肉焖牛棒骨
Sucking the marrow out of life – the classic line from “Dead Poet Society” becomes literal in many Asian cuisines. Today, I was surprised to be presented with this dish for a private dining menu. As it was a business lunch, I decided not to start using my hand and began sucking the bones. But the soup and gluten puffs that had soaked up all the soup were delicious.
Bamboo Shoot, Bean Curd and Salted Pork with Kale 腌笃鲜
There are so many variation of this dish in the greater Jiangsu-Shanghai reason. Some are more soupy, some with simpler ingredients. But the basic combination is the same – salted pork belly, bean curd, bamboo shoots and a vegetable. The use of kale in this example was a refreshing change.
Double-Boiled Duck Soup with Bamboo Soup 火烧扁尖老鸭汤
The layer of duck oil floating on the soup may look intimidating, but that’s the secret of keeping the soup underneath warm. It was a tasty soup, with crunchy bits of bamboo shoots and black wood fungus. Skip the duck meat, the flavour of the duck has all gone into the soup leaving behind a chewy and tasteless meat.
Stir-Fry Organic Vegetable 有机青江菜
The vegetable was grown in their own vegetable patch nearby. The vegetables tasted sweet and crunchy, something you don’t usually get from the mass-farmed variety.
Suzhou Garden Architecture 苏州园林
Tongli, formed in Song Dynasty with a history of over 1000 years, is a wonderful example of a vibrant and functioning water town. The restaurant owner also owns this hotel, which they used the pavilions in the gardens for hosting our private lunch.
The food was OK, but it was the service that was exemplary. The waitress was a local and gave us commentary on how each of the dish came about in the menu, especially the classic family dishes like the duck soup, stir-fry vegetable, etc. And the most enjoyable part – sitting in the manicured garden and enjoying the autumn breeze.
Floral Inn Tongli Ancient Town Yiyuan Inn
江苏省 苏州市 吴江区同里东溪街16号 Tongli Ancient Town, Wujiang District
Date Visited : Nov 2020