The dish that speaks volumes about Queen’s English, a charming new mom and pop in Columbia Heights, goes by the name “hand cut noodle” for the simple reason that the flat, hand-cut noodles on the plate are what first catch your attention. They are ivory on one side, ebony (from squid ink) on the other and reveal what their maker, chef Henji Cheung, calls “good chew.”
The noodles would probably be nice to eat on their own, but they’re tossed with a treasure trove of ingredients — Chinese celery, fresh squid treated to a hard char, prickly ash (similar to numbing Sichuan pepper) — and finished with a glaze of barrel-aged soy sauce that makes them irresistible. I wouldn’t dream of visiting the cozy dining room, watched over by Cheung’s wife and co-owner, Sarah Thompson, and bypassing the combination.
Cheung and Thompson have been readying for their debut restaurant for the past year, ever since they left New York, land of high rents and neighbors they never knew, for a more accommodating Washington. Cheung comes to Queen’s English from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he served as executive sous-chef for the onetime members’ restaurant. Thompson brings to the table both kitchen and dining room experience, and once ran her own artisanal sea salt company. The couple’s joint venture, a walk from where they live, taps into the chef’s background. Cheung lived in Hong Kong until he was 8, when his family relocated to Bensonhurst, returning every summer to China.
He’s cooking what he knows — and well.
Settle in with a drink. Thompson is in charge of the libations, which include a Chinese riff on an Old-Fashioned, infused with an herbal syrup, and a Negroni flavored with roasted five-spice. With the aim of serving wine she says is “just as funky as our food,” the restaurateur pours, among other things, a spritzy piquette from Maryland’s Old Westminster Winery that is similar in flavor to an Italian lambrusco.
Cheung’s noodles face competition for your appetite. Your table should also be graced with lamb ribs. They’re massaged with five-spice, braised for a couple of hours and finally charbroiled, resulting in a super-juicy, crunchy-soft, finger-lickin’ exercise. “How are the flavors?” Thompson asks. Pickled red onions atop the stack are just the right counterpoint, I want to tell her, but my mouth is full. Just as compelling is head-on branzino, its snowy flesh crisped from a 20-second dunk in hot oil, what the chef calls “a Chinese blanch.” The fish is presented with pickled Chinese cabbage and other vegetables, at once sweet and sour.
New restaurants of Asian persuasion seem compelled to serve cucumber salads. Queen’s English’s contribution — a green fan of sliced cucumbers splashed with red wine vinegar and sesame oil — glistens with a garnish of smoked trout roe. The dish is a restoring contrast to some of the richer plates, chiefly the creamy daikon fritters striped with Kewpie mayonnaise and heaped with frizzled shredded pork, which dissolves like cotton candy on the tongue. Cooler weather is expected to bring hot pot service.
Don’t shoot the messenger, but the 39-seat restaurant doesn’t take reservations and doesn’t list a phone number. “Everyone wants to come at 7:30,” says Thompson, who suggests the better strategy for would-be customers is to be at the door when it opens at 5:30, or after 8:45. It’s easy to fall for the place once you’re inside, set off with hanging pendant lanterns at the entrance and a chest of tiny drawers that doubles as a partition. The walls are fetchingly decorated with what looks like gold-and-red silk but turns out to be mostly practical vinyl. If I have a design complaint, it’s the tables, too small to accommodate more than a few plates at a time.
The name of the newcomer is an inside joke between husband and wife. When Thompson catches Cheung, who jokes about his Hong Kong- and Brooklyn-effected speech, saying something incorrectly, he playfully suggests he’s using “Queen’s English.”
3410 11th St. NW. No phone number. queensenglishdc.com. Dishes, $12 to $26.