Mas­ter­piece Res­tau­rant tit­il­lates palate, senses

GA Voice - - Black Gay Pride - Cliff Bo­s­tock is a long­time din­ing critic and psy­chother­a­pist turned life coach. www.cliff­bo­stock.com. By CLIFF BO­S­TOCK

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.

Mas­ter­piece’s Kung Pao chicken is one of many tra­di­tional Si­uchian dishes fa­vored by guests. (Photo: Cliff Bo­s­tock)

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