There are a few things that you do not want to hear come out of your server’s mouth. “That’s so brave of you!” is one of them.
Our server at Lao 18 uttered that statement after my dinner companion and I ordered the Shanghai jellyfish salad. Had the jellyfish been languishing in the kitchen for weeks, unordered? Is there some reason consuming this dish might be hazardous to my health? I’d already asked about the preparation and she said that the body of the jellyfish was sliced, boiled and chilled, then accented with green onions and carrots, so I knew what I was getting into.
More likely, she meant that she wasn’t expecting anyone at Tony Hu’s new restaurant to order a dish like jellyfish. And I get it—the majority of the menu at Lao 18 is not geared toward diners looking for the Chinese cuisine Hu is known for. Unlike Hu’s other restaurants, Lao Sze Chuan, Lao Hunan, and others, which focus on regional Chinese cuisines, Lao 18 pulls together menu items from other Hu restaurants. And the concept makes sense—offer the best Lao items in one restaurant that’s easy for tourists and downtown workers to get to. But in reality, Lao 18 was designed for diners who want to sit on love seats and pick at crab Rangoon or Asian chicken salad and order bottle service. Anyone looking for another thoughtful Chinese restaurant from Tony Hu is not going to find it at Lao 18.
There’s the 8,000-square foot space, which has birdcage-covered lights, a screen showing a cooking video and a bar decorated with glowing paper lanterns. It’s pretty, but it feels cavernous and impersonal. And while none of the food at Lao 18 was bad, nothing we ordered was good. There’s that jellyfish, which to be honest, it was brave to order, given that the snappy-textured strands tasted like pure garlic. If serving jellyfish in River North is designed to appeal to adventurous diners, then reward them by making it taste good. The Szechuan cold noodle salad was pasty and starchy and tasted like something you’d pick up in a to-go container. And you’d better love cumin if you order the cumin lamb, in which slices of lamb mingle with peppers and an amount of cumin so ridiculous that we could smell the dish wafting over from our neighbors’ table. Every other dish was underseasoned, and while several items we ordered were marked as spicy, I wasn’t groping for my water glass at any point. The Szechuan pork dumplings were serviceable but forgettable, and while Lao’s crispy duck had warm anise notes, it was too tough and couldn’t be eaten with the provided chopsticks or fork.
I’d say you could steel yourself for this meal with liquid courage, but the drink list is perplexing. There’s a section devoted to bellinis, a list of sakes (which are Japanese), plus wines and beer, one of which is from China. From the cocktail list, I ordered the Kappa’s Demise, subtitled the “Suntory Sazerac.” The cocktail, purportedly made with Suntory Hibiki 12-year, absinthe, Peychaud’s and Koval ginger liqueur, tastes like straight ginger. But the real travesty here is that this cocktail cost $15. $15! It’s hard to wrap my head around this price, since the majority of well-made cocktails in the city top out at $13, and they’re much, much better than this.
By the time we got to dessert and were munching on mint leaves and plain strawberries unceremoniously topping the jasmine custard, I was tired, and a little bit sad. If I hadn’t already been to Hu’s other restaurants, after a visit to Lao 18, I would have dismissed the restaurateur as just another purveyor of underwhelming Chinese cuisine. But I have, and that makes a visit to Lao 18 even more disappointing.