Thanks for all the recommendations, everyone. We decided to focus our meals on regional Chinese food that we don't have a lot of access to in Suzhou.
We had a great flight up from Wuxi on Shenzhen airlines, which apparently will still allow you to smoke on board. They also provided a decent box lunch of chicken curry rice, pickles, and a mandarin orange. Simple, but good. I never think to buy pickles at the supermarket; I think because they always come in opaque shrink wrap. I have to correct this.
We had a booking our first night for DaDong's Tuanjiehu branch, which is a short walk down from Sanlitun Village, where we were staying at the Opposite House. (A hotel I will forever love for stocking jelly beans in their free minibar.) It's apparently not the poshest interior, but that worked for us, as we were with a crew of our co-workers who were on a budget and didn't want anything too flash. The bill was an extremely reasonable 150 kuai a head, though, including tea, beer, two ducks, and some veg and cold dishes. Exceptional food. I actually wanted to go back again, but as ever, we didn't have enough meals to cover all the ground we wanted to.
Billed as pickled cabbage, the centre dish was actually more of a collection of pickled vegetables, including pink radish, chilis and carrot.
We also had the sour crunchy cucumbers.
Sesame chili chicken. This classic was actually voted best dish of the night, far beyond the duck. A couple of things won our love - this dish is usually presented on the bone, so you have to delicately whittle the chicken off while depositing lone bone shards and other undesirables onto your plate, causing attention to wander from the otherwise luscious combination of fatty-salty-spicy-sweet that makes up the sauce. I'm aware that many people find this an attraction rather than a drawback; but none were at our table. We are lazy eaters, I guess. In this presentation, the chicken had been removed from the bone, each velvety nugget of flesh suspended in the sauce. This dish broke the ice for our group, as many of us had just met/just started working together. When we started fighting over the bottom bits in the glass, we really came together as a team, I think. The other key point was the chili oil to sesame paste ratio - usually more oil than paste, it's a real exercise to get the chicken into your mouth without collateral oil splatter. No problems with this one. Actually, looking back, I don't know why we didn't order another round.
Duck! What else is there to say? Although I didn't get the point of dipping the skin in the sugar, that may be because I'm pre-diabetic from eating Jiangsu cuisine all the time. Some of my companions did not enjoy the "lean" style, preferring more flesh to skin; I don't feel this way. I think we should have ordered three ducks; we had two for seven, but a couple of the lads were not sated on their share. They provided pancakes and crispy sesame buns for wraps, along with pickles, chopped radish and leek, grated garlic, hoisin and sugar for garnish.
We also ordered, because I am a sucker for eggplant dishes, the braised eggplant. It was nice to see something other than a sprig of parsley or an orchid for presentation, although I'm not sure how much an improvement "smears" are, as artful as they can be; especially when they are a certain shade of brown-green. The eggplant was melting and tasted fragrant with anise, a flavour combination I'm going to experiment with.
A simple green dish to round things out - stir-fried dragon beans. These were cooked simply and made a nice complement to the richer, more heavily flavoured dishes.
The menu here is a real brick - I was extremely intimidated by having to choose. Since we didn't have any Chinese friends with us, my tablemates turned the ordering over to me. I always feel somewhat out of my league with everyone's dinner relying on my inexpertise; fortunately the waitress was patient and guided me to their more popular dishes. (Although we did spend several minutes calling "Fuwuyuan
!" to no effect, before my husband grokked and switched to "Fuwuyuanr
!" Cue three waitresses, running to the table, all for one retroflex.) I wish I lived in Beijing to further explore the menu, because everything that went out to tables around us looked equally intriguing.
We finished with an icy plate of fresh Chinese dates, which are now in season. Their charms are initially subtle - aside a from a crisp snap when you bite into them, it's kind of hard to see the attraction. However, they are mysteriously moreish, as if the crackle and snap of eating them is addictive. We also noted that while these are mildly sweet on their own, if you eat one and then take a long pull of Qingdao, they take on a pronounced honey flavour. We experimented at length with this effect until we ran out of beer. Then they brought round sweetcorn granitas, which won one of the lads a 10 kuai bet with the other who thought it was mango until tasting it.
The queues were long and competitive; our booking had us ushered in right away. I would recommend making one if you plan to visit.