Foreign Exchange

Chinatown-caliber dishes at River North's new Lao 18

Tony Hu wants to make you feel tingly.

Tongue-buzzing Szechuan peppercorns are scattered liberally across the menu at his new restaurant, Lao 18. This is the first downtown restaurant from the mastermind of Chicago's Lao empire, which includes Lao Hunan, Lao Ma La and nearly a dozen other restaurants.

The cavernous, boldly designed space is pure River North, but the menu is true to Hu's Chinatown restaurant origins.

The numbing effects of the peppercorns are most evident in a dish of fried sole fillet (pictured; $19), flavored with slivers of caramelized garlic, ginger and scallions and garnished with a hailstorm of the red-brown nubs. A mouthful of the peppercorns will stun your palate for the rest of the meal, so proceed with caution, adding one to every other bite.

Hu calls his tea-smoked duck ($19) "one of the best dishes in Chicago," and this isn't bravado. Brashly smoky and subtly spiced from a two-day bath in ginger, five-spice powder, star anise and chiles, it's some of the finest barbecue in town.

Don't leave without a bowl of Szechuan pork dumplings ($8), which arrive swimming in a riotous, slurpable combination of soy sauce, vinegar, ginger, garlic and scallions.

We're pleased to report that more dumplings are imminent: The restaurant's daily dim sum menu launches tomorrow.