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Restaurant Review: Masterpiece

Chef Liu Ri creates a mind-blowing Sichuan experience in Duluth

In 2006, Tasty China opened and chef Peter Chang transformed how our city views Chinese food. Our Chinese-food-loving population was collectively awakened from its Cantonese coma with a spicy slap to the face and it hurt so damn good. While Tasty China ignited Atlanta's love for "ma la" (the hot and numbing flavors of Sichuan cuisine), one chef, who also worked at Tasty China after Chang moved on, is showing us the essence of truly skilled Sichuan cooking.

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That chef is Liu Ri, a native of Harbin in northeastern China. He opened Masterpiece in a nondescript commercial strip in the desolate northern reaches of Buford Highway in Duluth last summer. His decision to name his restaurant Masterpiece seems borderline humble. Nearly 30 dishes in, I've barely scratched the surface of this chef's talent, which begs the question: Why mourn the departure of Peter Chang when we have someone as gifted as Liu Ri hiding in plain sight?

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Christiane Lauterbach of Knife & Fork newsletter and Atlanta Magazine has called Liu Ri a "master chef" on par with a Michelin-starred chef. When Lauterbach interviewed him through a translator for an Atlanta Magazine piece, the chef told her of how he came to the States on a special visa for people with "extraordinary skills" and of cooking for Chinese officials and dignitaries back in his home country where he is a highly decorated chef. Many of those awards, accolades, and photos of his life back in China hang on the wall of his tiny restaurant.

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Liu Ri cooks in the styles of the Sichuan, Hunan, and Harbin provinces. Liu Ri's knife work is so fluid and detailed it's as though his knife is an extension of himself. (He owns the patent for a special carving knife.) Masterpiece's Facebook page has photos of the chef's fruit and vegetable creations such as a dreamscape complete with an invading carrot dragon that looks straight from Game of Thrones.

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Chef Liu Ri's range is his greatest talent. He spins masterful webs of spice, lightness, and decadence with a respect for balance. What sets Liu Ri apart from his Atlanta Sichuan contemporaries is how softly his Sichuan dishes sizzle. Not all of the food here is spicy, but when it is, it burns with purpose. Sichuan food can be less forgiving to the constitution and practically sadistic to ingest. Liu Ri's brand of cooking is more refined and infinitely gentler the morning after.

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The menu is broken into standard Chinese restaurant categories of proteins, vegetables, and other mains and sides. There's a short dumpling menu where you will find meat-filled dumplings colored orange, green, and purple with vegetable juice. They're good, but I prefer the thinner texture of the wontons in a salty and spicy broth slick with chili oil. The skins are more delicate and, as a result, less difficult to eat.

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Masterpiece's hot and sour soup is more complex than any I've ever had. The slippery, peppery, sour, and intensely spicy broth made every other version I've tasted seem like an impostor. A platter of short, sour green bean pieces almost tasted fermented. I couldn't resist going back for each funky bite. The dry-fried eggplant is so mind-blowing it was like losing my dry-fried eggplant virginity all over again. Its thin, crackly crust dusted with salty and spicy Sichuan peppercorn (or "prickly ash" as it's also known) has an addictive crunch that gives way to hot, creamy eggplant.

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Crumpled pieces of steamed neon green cabbage leaves create a bed for thin slices of steamed tilapia topped with sour pickled chilies. The pickling mellows the heat of the chilies until they're almost sweet. At press time, the dish was no longer available. Instead, try boiled fish with prickly ash: big hunks of tilapia steamed until the fish resembles the texture of silken tofu. The fish is sprinkled with ground red Sichuan peppercorns, but the heat is tangy. It comes with a mound of wilted bean sprouts you can twirl onto your chopstick like noodles.

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The broth of the fish in chili stew taunts with its murk, brightened by bouncing buoys of red chili pepper. Beneath the menacing surface hover fish filets so tender your tongue will break its flesh into pieces.

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Skinny celery accompanies pork belly sliced as thin as playing cards and cooked at such a high temperature the edges curl and brown. Each bite is a mix of green crunch from the al dente celery and fatty meat spiced with jalapeños, sliced garlic, and scallions.

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The Dong-po pork is a show-stopping dish. A neat block of pork belly about the size of an orange is draped in a shiny mahogany sauce so dark it looks black. The dish is named for Su Dongpo, a Chinese scholar from the Song Dynasty, who is said to have invented the dish. Each chopstick full of pork is a balanced mix of fat and flesh ringing with ginger and the telltale caramel taste of Shaoxing wine.

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The bite-size pieces of chicken (served bone-in or boneless for a few extra bucks) have a nice crackly exterior dusted in salt, numbing red pepper powder, and other secret herbs and spices. I found it impossible to stop eating them even at the end of a 14-dish meal. They're the Sichuan equivalent of Chick-fil-A nuggets (except much, much better) doused in chopped cilantro, dried red chilies, and scallions.

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The black pepper beef arrives sizzling on a cast iron pan like fajitas. The glossy pieces of meat are mildly spiced and a rich counterpoint to the lighter dishes.

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Dan dan noodles are one of the few underwhelming dishes I've experienced at Masterpiece. The ground pork wasn't intensely flavored enough to season the noodles. Try the cold noodles instead, which are drenched in a spicy sauce, creamy with sesame paste, and immensely slurp-able. Thin slices of cumin lamb were under-salted and the meat flabby and unremarkable.

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The dining room is not fancy. It's simple with its tiled floors, white tablecloths, and a wall of framed photos and articles. Yet, something about the barebones space feels homey, like I'm in some grandmother's kitchen where I will sit, linger, and eat very well. Service is slow and patience is required since dishes come out one at a time – almost like a paced-out tasting menu. It's just Liu Ri in the kitchen. Since this is a family operation, be prepared to find your table missing bowls, chopsticks, and, sometimes, a waiter. But such inconveniences are a small price to pay for the best Chinese food in the Atlanta area. (4 out of 5 stars)

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