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Tony Hu Expands His Empire With Lao 18

By Chris Bentley in Food on Jun 21, 2013 7:00PM

Tony Hu, the famed restaurateur and king of Chinese cuisine in Chicago, is on a roll. Any luck he accrues at this point would seem to be a bonus, but he isn’t taking any chances — his newest restaurant, located at 18 W. Hubbard St., previewed to a select swarm of people earlier this week, amassing nearly as many links to the auspicious number eight as it did to eager Aldermen and VIPs who gathered to cut red ribbons beside Chinese lion dancers.

Lao 18 (even the black stroke in the logo’s “A” calls to mind the Chinese character for eight) might be a fitting perch from which to survey Hu’s restaurant empire, which has grown in leaps and bounds well beyond Chinatown.

The 8,000 square foot space, a collaboration with designers Hiki Feng and Jeremy Stanulis, seats 265 and includes private event space and an outdoor patio. It’s exactly what you might imagine from a merger of Hu’s veneration for Chinese tradition and River North’s chic atmosphere: fiery red-and-orange glass panels depicting an East Asian landscape behind the bar punctuate an otherwise sleekly dark color palette, Chinese-inspired light fixtures and ornamentation get a modern tweak to suit the lounge-like seating, which rings a large dining space with raised half-booths and a long, slender bar.

Unlike Hu’s regionally themed locations such as Lao Sze Chuan and Lao Hunan, Lao 18 specializes in all Chinese styles, serving classic dim sum, lunch and dinner dishes like salt and pepper squid, shumai, har gow, and barbecue spareribs.

And what would a River North spot be without cocktails? Based on the few we sampled, Lao 18’s put a spin on sweet and colorful offerings by topping them off with Asian ingredients — a fruity vodka drink garnished with a whole blackberry and a dried chili pepper. We didn’t score any, but according to UrbanDaddy Lao 18 carries an off-menu Sichuan-peppercorn-infused bourbon topped with Maotai, a 106-proof Chinese liquor, glasses of which have been raised by the likes of Mao Zedong, Richard Nixon, Xi Jinping and Barack Obama.

The full menu wasn’t on display Tuesday, so a heartier review will have to wait until after Thursday's public opening.

Welcome to Lao 18 from Lao 18 on Vimeo.