Food Review: Masterpiece Restaurant titillates palate, senses

Perhaps your childhood experience of Chinese food, like mine, involved eating slop like soy-drenched, celery-packed chicken chow mein topped with those usually stale, crispy worms. Such crap was so ubiquitous, for years I detested soy sauce and avoided Chinese restaurants altogether.

In my late 20s, though, I began eating my way up and down Buford Highway. I’ve never stopped. People frequently ask me why I’m so obsessed with the array of ethnic cuisines there. It’s simple. I’m adventurous, I like being able to eat well for little money, and I love waking up the palates of friends who also had my childhood experience of eating gruesome parodies of ethnic food.

For the last six months, Yelpers and food critics have fallen in love with Masterpiece (3490 Buford Hwy, 770-622-1191), a Chinese hole-in-the-wall in Duluth. Yes, foodies love to romanticize odd little hidden-away restaurants, but, believe me, this one is worth the drive to the hinterlands.

Here’s why. Masterpiece is owned by Chef Ri Liu. I’m not going into the complicated details, but he was brought to the United States by Tasty China in Marietta, when its strange and brilliant Chef Peter Chang disappeared. Liu, like Chang, is quite renowned in China. He’s certified as a master chef and has published three cookbooks.  He carves feathery swans out of vegetables.

Liu’s cuisine is similar to Chang’s because much of it is rooted in the Sichuan tradition that is profuse with hot chilies, including the numbing ones that sting your lips and then anesthetize them. But Liu is also influenced by the less fiery food of the Harbin and Hunan provinces. The result is a much more subtle cuisine. Flavors of each ingredient swirl, often but not always with an underlying, simmering spiciness that alerts the palate instead of overwhelming it. Perhaps this is so impressive to the American palate simply because we didn’t grow up in a world of hot chilies. In any case, it’s awesome.

The menu is endless. The dish that stunned me most was Dong-po Pork. It is four large cubes of pork belly. Its gorgeous layers of fat and meat are cooked in a very dark sauce of rice wine, slightly sweet and salty.

A friend ordered two native Sichuan favorites ruined by nearly every Chinese restaurant in town—Kung Pao chicken and hot and sour soup. Liu’s soup is most notable for its long-simmered broth. It is actually hot, with intense blasts of sourness. The Kung Pao was the favorite dish on our table—spicy, full of tastily seasoned peanuts and hunks of caramelized, juicy chicken.

If you like French fries, prepare to be astounded by the fried rectangles of eggplant, shockingly crispy and dusted with a powder made from Sichuan peppers.  A dish of cumin lamb disappointed me a bit. It was my favorite of Peter Chang’s dishes.

One warning: the restaurant has fewer than a dozen tables in a dining room that is basically décor-less. We had no wait on a Friday night, but I’ve heard complaints to the extreme contrary. Don’t expect the best service, either. But patience is truly a virtue at Masterpiece.

Cliff Bostock is a longtime dining critic and psychotherapist turned life coach.