Can you think of a more presumptuous name for a restaurant than Masterpiece? If a celebrity chef named his flagship something like that, I’d think he was unbearably arrogant.
Walking into this modest strip mall Szechuan restaurant in Duluth, I was afraid the name might be unintentionally ironic. The walls are adorned with amateurish art and a few decorations that look like they were purchased from a discount store. Masterpieces, they are not.
This restaurant, on the other hand, just might be.
In many ways, this appears to be an average Chinese restaurant. A smiling woman will put a pot of hot, watery jasmine tea on your table when you arrive. The dishes you order will be accompanied by a red plastic bowl of sticky white rice. If you bring your own beer or wine, that same smiling woman will bring you odd, mismatched pint glasses to pour it in. If you don’t speak Mandarin, you will order mostly by pointing to vaguely translated dishes on the menu.
But then the food will arrive. It might be dongpo pork, a square cut of pork belly braised into the delicate texture of custard and sauced with a dark, earthy reduction you’ll find yourself spooning over rice for one last complex taste of fermented, salty umami before the waitress can take the plate away.
Or the first dish could be the fuqi feipan, a pile of paper-thin slices of tripe, tendon and other offal tossed with a gently fiery cold sauce and cilantro.
Chef Liu Ri worked at Peter Chang’s Tasty China in Marietta before opening Masterpiece. I know many people, myself included, who have been transfixed by the intense, hot and numbing seasoning of Chang’s Szechuan dishes, which take spicy to a kind of psychedelic level of experience. Clearly, Liu has learned from his former boss, but Masterpiece is a restaurant that aims for and achieves beautiful degrees of balance and flavor, rather than extremes.
Take the spicy mixed lettuces, a chopped and gently wilted mixture of crunchy cabbage and greens that is sauced in a simple, lightly salty dark sauce. The dish includes split Szechuan peppercorns, the kind that will leave a little hot numbness on your tongue, but they are a crunchy pleasure rather than an overwhelming palette killer.
The eggplant with chili powder and pepper ash powder is much like the popular dry-fried eggplant served at many Szechuan restaurants, but the intense heat and flavor is precisely focused.
I could go on and on. The menu here is wildly long, which usually means a lot of filler dishes and few standouts. The opposite is true at Masterpiece. Almost every dish I’ve ordered here surprised and impressed me in some way.
Cumin lamb kidney? The slices of kidney arrived scored into springy, savory chunks, seasoned to a perfect evocation of cumin flavor. A blood-red bowl of hot and sour glass noodles studded with chunks of pig intestine? Yes, I slurped that spicy, vinegar-rich dish directly into my heart. I loved it.
Less adventurous eaters will find great pleasure in the smoked fried tea duck, which is as tender and rich as I’ve ever had, or the dumplings, which arrive dyed in the bright colors of purple cabbage or carrot juice.
Masterpiece can have a transformative effect on people. One night, I brought a couple who had recently bought a home in Grant Park and said they hadn’t been going out lately and mostly wanted to stay home. Halfway through the meal, surrounded by warm plates of fried eggplant and string beans and salty duck, the woman leaned over to her partner and said, “We should do this more often.”
I got home from my first meal at Masterpiece around 11 p.m. The next day, around 10:30 a.m., I called a friend and asked him to go to lunch there. I couldn’t stay away for even 12 hours, and Masterpiece is a 30-minute drive from my house.
How can food cause this kind of madness? I’m not exactly sure. Maybe it is that careful hand with seasoning. Maybe it is because the menu contains more delights than I have room to mention here.
Maybe it is something else, the hard-to-define quality that makes a sleepy, casual Chinese restaurant with a talented chef so compelling that we drive around for hours looking for a place just like Masterpiece.
The French call it je ne sais quoi or “I don’t know what.” It is one quality, among others, that could describe a masterpiece.