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Outbound is SmartShanghai's travel features series dedicated to fascinating and wonderful places, nearby and far-flung, around China and sometimes not. See More

The St Cavish Longform Guide to Suzhou: Eat, Sleep, Eat Again

Checking out the neighborhood.
By - Photos: SmSh Photographers Jul 17, 2020 Travel & Sightseeing
I love Suzhou. It was the first city I visited outside Shanghai fifteen years ago, riding around the lake and the tank trails on a borrowed motorcycle, and the one I return to most often. If Totino Panino delivered by high-speed train, I’d probably move there. But no matter — it’s faster to get there by gaotie than to get to Pudong Airport. So I’ve been spending a lot of time there in recent months, spurred on by the city’s fantastic noodles and sparsely populated classical gardens.

Suzhou has a lot to offer, from a world-class bookstore to a rich tradition of folk-singing and a strong heritage of highly localized Jiangnan food. It’s amazing how much changes with just a 30-minute trip away. Even the dialect is different: nai hao instead of nong hao, for example.

There’s way more to it than I can cover in this (already too-long) article, so I’m just going to cover the way I travel, which is dictated by meals. Food first. Always.

This article is broken up into three sections: Where to Eat, Where to Sleep and Stuff to Do When You’re Not Eating or Sleeping.

WHERE TO EAT



Not an exhaustive list of places. Mostly focused on my favorite food — noodles — in my favorite approach: wanton overconsumption.

Noodles



Noodles in Suzhou are a breakfast and lunch thing.

Start early, digest in the garden then go back and take a nap.


Jiayufang (嘉馀坊) is a short street that runs west off Renmin Lu. There are three outstanding noodle shops on one block. Do them in this order:




At Tong De Xing (同得兴, 6 Jiayufang) order the fengzhen darou noodles (枫镇大肉面). They come in white (with a little jiu niang in the broth) or red (with a little soy sauce in the broth). Order an extra piece of menti (焖蹄), the incredible braised, chilled pork. DO NOT EAT THE NOODLES HERE UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE. There is nothing wrong with them. But they will fill you up and ruin the other restaurants. And anyway, the special thing at Tong De Xing is the broth.



Take a minute to just drink the broth, let the menti warm up on top of the noodles, and have those two things together. The pork just melts into the soup, the soup is already excellent and a little boozy from the jiu niang and consider for a minute when the last time you had an expensive stock used as the base for your cheap noodles in Shanghai.

Now leave.

Walk 50 meters up the street and find Yu Xing Ji (裕兴记, 25 Jiayufang).



Get the 二面黄 which is actually pronounced "liang mian huang" despite how it’s written. (I got into a long and losing debate about this with a Suzhou friend and now concede to her). I like the one topped with tiny shrimp and soft pork tendon. If the first stop is about stock and softness, this one is for crunch and contrast. Do not take too many pictures of the dish (but sit near the big picture windows in either room for best light) lest it start to get soggy.



It’s a disc of fried noodles sitting on top of a thickened stock. Break it apart, run the noodles through the stock so part of them gets soft and enjoy the crunch. Maybe add a little vinegar. Repeat. Notice how the noodles soften in just a couple minutes, and the texture of the dish changes. That’s its charm. Split one liang mian huang for two people.

DO NOT ORDER THEIR FAMOUS THREE-SHRIMP NOODLE.

A far superior three-shrimp noodle is just across the street.

Exit Yu Xing Ji and go across the street to Yu Mian Zhai (御面斋, 50 Jiayufang). This is the reason I go to Suzhou.

These noodles are expensive. There are less than 30 seats in the entire place. The whole operation exudes class.



It’s a family affair but this is not your typical laobaixing success story. Mom was an accountant for her entire career before starting the noodle shop with one chef helping out. Dad was the cashier until he had a sudden stroke a couple years ago and passed away. Son is university educated and has three boys (he got lucky and had boy twins in 2019).

Mom and son now cook. They only do quality, which is why everything is so expensive. Ask for tea. Notice that they use the expensive tissues for customers. Check out the second-floor private room (if you have four or more people, you can book it too).

There are two musts on the menu: the three-shrimp noodle (三虾面) and the shrimp-crab noodle (虾蟹面). They are both “dry” noodles, not soup noodles. They are intensely umami and full of bouncy, tiny shrimp and buttery crab meat.



After you’ve checked these boxes, you are free to explore the rest of the menu. The wild duck soup noodles (野鸭面) are salty and delicious, the yellow croaker noodles (黄鱼面) are a bit sour, and the shredded chicken with dried scallop and xiazi (鸡丝干贝面) – another “dry” noodle – is also excellent.

Really, it’s all excellent.

This is my favorite noodle shop in eastern China.

A few caveats. Try not to arrive after 11am. The lunch rush gets crazy. The seats fill up fast but the kitchen works at the same pace, so you’ll wait for a while. They close at 3pm. Don’t try to sneak in just before they close. They only buy four kilos of river shrimp each day and when they’re done, there’s no more three-shrimp noodles.



Say hi to mom. Say hi to the son. The shop opens at 7.30am. Three-shrimp noodles are only a summer thing. They do other things in other seasons.

After the noodles, walk back to the intersection with Renmin Lu, turn south, and 100 meters up is another, lesser garden (怡园, 1265 Renmin Lu) that’s not touristy at all – mostly used by Suzhou residents. Rest here for a little while and digest. It costs 15rmb to get in.

Dinner





Xin Ju Feng (新聚丰, 9 Taijian Lane, 太监弄9号) is an old-school laozihao restaurant that doesn’t actually suck – it even has a Dianping Black Diamond – on a shopping street that does suck. It’s Suzhou cooking in a stodgy dining room heavy on chandeliers. This is chef Zhu Longxiang’s (朱龙祥) place.

Zhu, now in his 60s, is well-known in Suzhou and has had an interesting career, at one point being assigned to the Chinese embassy in Libya for his kitchen skills. “Very peaceful back then,” he told me. “Not like now.” That was 1988. He is quick to point out that he is the only Black Diamond restaurant in Suzhou that does local food but is not in a five-star hotel. He’s the straggly underdog and he’s proud.



As he should be. I’ve had several excellent dishes here, including the salted celtuce tossed in spring onion oil (葱油莴笋), the Suzhou-style braised duck (苏州酱鸭) and the tiny, shelled river shrimp (清溜虾仁). His red date gao is also excellent.



The most famous dish here, though, is totally ridiculous: an imperial feast of just the tiny cheeks of a wild fish from nearby Tai Lake called, wonderfully, the Dark Sleeper (糖鲤鱼). It takes dozens or hundreds of fish cheeks to make enough for a single small bowl. Zhu does it by reservation only and charges handsomely for the privilege — upwards of 500rmb per small bowl per person. Maybe skip that. But if you are a fan of velvety, mild fish — really a whisper of a dish — the kitchen will serve a plate of Dark Sleeper fillets, enough for 4-6, for around 400rmb. Ate it. Delicious.

Opening hours are short but they are busy throughout lunch, so it’s ok to show at 1.15 (they close at 1.30) without getting yelled at.



吴门人家 is a Fuchsia Dunlop favorite (38 Panru Lane, 潘儒巷38号). The menu is indeed very Suzhou, with lots of water produce you don’t see commonly even in Shanghai, like 莼菜 (water shield) and 鸡头米 (water "chickpeas"). I was glad I experienced it but can’t say I liked it. It’s probably a lot better if you are friends with the owner. The walls are covered with a thousand of those state-issued plaques declaring the restaurant and its cuisine to be important, if that means something to you.

Then there is Xizhou Hall. But that’s in the Park Hyatt which is its own section, below.

HOTELS



The Garden Hotel



The Garden Hotel (南园宾馆, 99 Daichengqiao, 带城桥路99号) is a large campus in the middle of downtown, right off Shiquan Jie, which is like the… I don’t know… of Suzhou. It’s a street with popular coffee shops and shops. Yongjia Lu? Something like that.

At one point, the grounds that the hotel sit on belonged to Chiang Kai-Shek, who then gave them to his second concubine to raise one of his sons. In 2007, after many years of renovation, it became a hotel. It’s on big grounds with so much history they give free guided tours of the place. Just from walking around, you can see old Republican era houses, complete with a limousine in the garage, and a restored temple. For 1,000rmb you can get a very large room with many pieces of furniture, a king bed and a big bathroom with a bathtub. Five-star Chinese hotel. A little old, a little stodgy, but perfectly acceptable and great location.

Park Hyatt Suzhou





Park Hyatt Suzhou (柏悦酒店, 69 Xizhou Lu, 西洲路69号) just opened this summer and it’s super wanghong in the city right now. Its afternoon tea, which is the most affordable way into the hotel, is booked until December. Its Chinese restaurant is hard to book on weekends, even for guests.

I stayed there for free for two nights this month. I was lucky. The hotel invited me. You should know that. But I only accepted it because I already knew the hotel was beautiful and I like what Hyatt does for Chinese restaurants in China. What I didn’t know was the background of the hotel and its chefs — the things that are important to me.



So this is it. The hotel was built and is owned by Gold Mantis, a seriously well-connected interior decoration and construction company from Suzhou. This is the company that built the Bird’s Nest in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. They built the new Beijing Daxing Airport. They built Shanghai Tower, the tallest building in China. They have been the construction or interior decoration company for a million five-star hotels in China, from the W Brand to the Shangri-La to the Waldorf Astoria and more. They built Wuxi’s first metro line. Etc. You can see all of this on their website.



Park Hyatt Suzhou is their showpiece. On one level, it’s a model hotel, showing off what they can do, in their hometown. It was never going to suck. Aaaaaand… it’s pretty amazing. It feels very modern China, with lots of Chinese cultural influence, from the crab-apple theme throughout all the furnishings (that four-sided cloud-looking thing) to the Jiangnan-style paintings on the first floor (don’t ask how many millions of rmb they cost).



Just the fat carp swimming in the interior courtyard ponds go for six-figures — each. The bonsai pines are worth more than that. Insanity. Love it.



The hotel is located in the Suzhou Industrial Park area, which is not as bad as it seems. It's right against Jinji Lake and near the massive ferris wheel/observation eye thing, and there's plenty to do in the area. Especially the Eslite bookstore (see below). If it were Shanghai, this would be like a location next to Century Park in Pudong, I think. Definitely Pudong.




Apart from the room, which is five-star and has a toilet seat that automatically rises when you walk into the bathroom, my absolute favorite thing about the hotel is its Chinese restaurant, Xizhou Hall.



The chef here is Yu Xiaoxiang (虞晓祥), who was recruited from a state guesthouse in Hangzhou where he cooked for Important People. Yu, not yet 40, is a master of Huaiyang cuisine, the foundation of all the regional cooking in eastern China. He is from Yangzhou, the hometown of Huaiyang cuisine. At one point, he was in Shanghai at the Mandarin Oriental’s Yong Yi Ting.



I love Huaiyang cuisine as much for its lightness as for what it represents: humility and skill. Humility because it is not about luxury ingredients; it is about using ingenuity and hard-earned knife skills to turn everyday foods into something beautiful. It doesn’t need to drop caviar or an abalone or sea urchin on top of something to make it special.



For example, this tofu above. Yeah. That’s tofu. Cut sixty times in one direction, eighty times in the other, until there are 4,800 fine strands that open up like a flower in the highly-clarified-but-still-rich broth. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this; it’s definitely the nicest I have seen, though.




Or things like these, where Yu and his cooks have carved celtuce into a bunch of tiny flowers and then arranged them to look like a larger flower (or a hedgehog), and cut soy-pickled radish into perfectly geometric petals and arranged another flower. I like the humbleness. As a one-time chef, I appreciate the daogong, the knife skills.

There’s a lot on the menu to explore, both Suzhou dishes and Yangzhou dishes, but I’ll highlight one more classic Yangzhou dish that Yu makes an exceptional version of: the lion’s head meatball. The difference between a bad lion’s head and good lion’s head is the difference between a billiards ball and a balloon. A bad one is dense, evenly textured, heavy to eat and difficult to break apart. A good one is light, hand-chopped (you can tell by the uneven texture of the meat) and easy to break apart.



Yu’s version is a good one. It’s not only massive, which is difficult to do and not have it break, but it’s light. He steams them for three hours in a chicken and ham stock and then makes a sauce, with soy, from the stock. The sauce glazes the lion’s head, which comes to the table in a sizzling stone pot. Excellent stuff. I’m going back myself this weekend. Try to book.


STUFF TO DO WHEN YOU'RE NOT EATING OR SLEEPING



Pingtan





Pingtan is Suzhou-style folk singing. Go with low expectations and don’t spend more than 100rmb each and you’ll be rewarded with what’s actually a pretty cool experience. If you can read some Chinese, so you can compare the subtitles with the crazy Suzhou-hua they use to sing, it gets many times better. But even without understanding a word, watching the facial expressions of the singers and actors, and listening to the folk music, is really cool.

The performance I went to at Guangyu Shuting (光裕书厅) was only an hour long, so if you hate it despite all of that, it’s over quickly. Book on Damai. I paid 100rmb, theater was almost empty. Get there 20 minutes early and you’ll have the pick of the seats.

Suzhou Museum





Designed by I.M. Pei, a Suzhou native who famously designed the glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris. In the early 2000s, when he was in his 80s, the city commissioned him to re-do the Suzhou Museum (204 Dongbei Jie, 东北街204号). He really delivered. The architecture is more stunning than the permanent collection, but it’s more about the building and the grounds than anything else. Can do the whole thing in an hour.



It’s free but you have to register on their WeChat mini program (苏州博物馆全预约) ahead of time to enter during a designated time. They turn you away if you miss the slot.

Don’t skip the gift shop, which has cool Suzhou stuff.

Eslite, the Taiwanese Book Store





This place (诚品生活苏州, 8 Yuelang Jie, 月廊街9号) is amazing. A proper two-story massive book store with tens of thousands of volumes, multiple cafes, some assorted retail knick-knacks and hard-to-find books. If you don't read Chinese, the selection narrows considerably but it's not lost.



If you do read Chinese, there are two shelves full of food-related essays, translated copies of cult food magazine Lucky Peach (official ones), Fuchsia Dunlop's Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper book of essays, Harold McGee's complete On Food & Cooking — just a lot to feast on. Shanghai needs one of these immediately. About ten minutes from the Park Hyatt by car.

Gardens





Cang Lang Ting (沧浪亭, 3 Canglangting Jie, 沧浪亭街3号) is a very pretty traditional garden that has been totally peaceful and nearly empty when I visit. The staff said that it’s always kind of like this during the virus period. Not so much tourism and this isn’t one of the most popular gardens, which makes it lovely.



It is immediately across from the Ke Garden (可园), which you can do right before/after. But the whole city is full of gardens. See some of them here.

Coffee Shops





I don't drink coffee, so I asked my coffee fiend friend Anna Solovyeva to visit Suzhou and tell me what's good. This is what she had to say.

Coffee enthusiasts should visit Sparrow (麻雀咖啡, 683 Shiquan Jie, 十全街683号), one of the first third-wave coffee shops in Suzhou. Very atmospheric; on a good day you can chill in the square in front of the coffeeshop and eavesdrop on Suzhou's hipsterati.



However, if you'd like an easy introduction to Suzhou's booming coffee shop culture, take a stroll down Shilinsi Xiang (狮林寺巷). There are five/six coffeeshops on a 100 meter stretch, including QQCC aka Quite Qualified Coffee Company (相当合格咖啡公司, 8 Shilinsi Xiang) and Roaster Q (30 Shilinsi Xiang), which are small, modern, and achingly hip. Try their specialty drinks.

Although Antidote (解药, 726 Shiquan Jie, 十全街726号) is very wanghong at the moment, we would recommend Title Coffee (标题咖啡, 74 Pingqiao Zhijie, 平桥直街74号) around the corner instead: similar rock-ish vibe but more precise about their coffee and it attracts less of a manically selfie-obsessed crowd.



You can also take a walk down Ximei Xiang (西美巷), a newly happening coffee street which is worth watching. Most notable is KISS (10 Ximei Xiang), with their laidback living room atmosphere and collection of retro-futuristic tchotchkes; a cross between a metal bar and a beach bungalow, down a lane in Suzhou's old town.

**

Looking for more getaway ideas? We have a whole page of them right here.

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