for Palates

by Janet Essman Franz

The menu might be Asian, but the ingredients at Silver Palace are true Vermont

Ken Wong, Ed Lee and Ting NgJust over 20 years ago, Ken Wong, Ed Lee and Ting Ng, friends from childhood with experience in food service, brought their creative cooking skills to Vermont and opened Silver Palace, a gourmet Chinese restaurant in South Burlington.

A sightseeing trip to Vermont 20 years ago brought three lifelong friends to open the Burlington region’s first gourmet Chinese restaurant. That restaurant continues to be a popular destination for connoisseurs of fine Asian cuisine.

Ed Lee, Ken Wong and Ting Ng are co-owners of Silver Palace on Williston Road in South Burlington. Lee and Wong share manager duties, with Wong sometimes doubling as a chef. Ng is head chef, developing recipes, cooking and overseeing the kitchen.

Lee, Wong and Ng grew up together in the New York metropolitan area. Wong and Ng lived in the same block in the Bronx, and Lee’s family owned a Chinese restaurant in Lakewood, N. J., where the he and Ng worked as waiters and cooks.

“We used to work for my parents,” says Lee. “We were childhood friends who evolved into business partners.”

After high school, Lee studied business at Rutgers University. Ng, a chef in New York City, trained with the head chef of Shun Lee Palace in Manhattan. For a time, Lee and Ting had a restaurant in New Jersey, where Wong worked with them.

In their mid 20s, they decided to open their own restaurant as partners and set out to find a location. A chef they knew had mentioned Burlington would be a good place for them to consider because there were few Chinese restaurants here at the time. During a road trip to Vermont in 1986, the trio agreed that it would be a good place to fulfill their dream. They toured the region, went skiing and decided they liked the look and feel of Burlington.

“We were college-aged,” says Wong, “and we were attracted by the vibe of the town. We liked the beauty of the lake and the college. It feels like a small town with everything close, and the people here are nice and polite. Coming from the City, where nobody says hi, this felt warmer and slower-paced.”

Ng remembers finding a lack of good Asian cuisine. “We ordered Chinese food in town and found that there was no competition with what we could offer. From a chef’s point of view, what was here was not good. It would not survive in Manhattan. We thought we could do better.”

“When you work in the restaurant business you see things and always feel you could do better,” adds Lee.

They found available space at 1216 Williston Road, and within a few months the three friends returned to Vermont with five additional partners to open the Silver Palace, Ng says.

Silver Palace offers a variety of traditional and nontraditional Asian dishes, with a focus on fresh foods, good quality and larger portions. “We have the most selection and types of dishes in the area. We have a variety of seafood, meats and vegetables. It is the best quality around,” says Wong. “We have an eclectic menu, ranging from Thai to Szechuan to Hong Kong style to Indian.”

Ellen LeeEllen Lee prepares drinks at a small bar, reminiscent of a tiki hut, in the dining room.

Silver Palace did well, so in 1990 the partners expanded to a second location, in Florida. Four of the original eight partners, including Ng, moved to Florida to open Rainbow Palace, an upscale, high-end restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. Ng stayed a year before deciding to return to Vermont. “I love Vermont better, and my wife didn’t want to move to Florida,” he says.

Of the original eight, Ng, Lee and Wong remain in Vermont and three others continue to manage Rainbow Palace, which consistently rates four stars from the AAA Travel Guides. Two partners left after a foray in the mid 1990s into a Colorado restaurant that didn’t work out.

Wong and Ng live in Williston, and Lee settled in South Burlington. All three are married with school-aged children, and their families are close. “We get together for barbecues and dinners, and we play tennis quite a bit,” Wong says.

On an average weekday, Silver Palace serves about 100 customers, including those who dine in and carry out, says Wong. The restaurant’s busiest seasons are autumn and the Christmas holidays. “We have mostly local patrons, but we also have quite a lot of tourists. The hotels recommend us,” Wong says.

Ng enjoys trying out restaurants in other cities and experimenting with their recipes. He fuses cooking styles and uses a lot of garlic and olive oil, unconventional ingredients for Chinese cuisine.

“I am not bound by tradition of what Chinese food is supposed to be like, where I have to cook Cantonese or Szechuan style. I don’t believe things have to be authentic,” Ng says. “One of my most popular dishes is broiled shrimp with basil over garlic rice. I tried this in a Spanish restaurant with saffron rice and I thought, ‘why can’t I offer this in a Chinese restaurant?’ I tried several recipes to get it right. It has become one of our most popular dishes.”

Customers compare Silver Palace cuisine to that found in restaurants in New York and Boston.

“It’s a sophisticated menu. You won’t see ordinary chow mein and a lot of fried food. The food is fresh and unique,” says John Rosenberg, owner of Rags and Riches in South Burlington. A frequent customer of Silver Palace, Rosenberg has been dining there since the restaurant opened. He says it remains one of his family’s favorite dining options.

“My daughter lives in New York City and has access to the finest food there is, but Silver Palace is always one of her favorites. My son lives in Miami, Fla., and when he visits he can’t wait to go to Silver Palace to get his ‘fix.’”

Jessica DunhamSilver Palace offers a sophisticated menu featuring a variety of traditional and nontraditional Asian dishes, with a focus on fresh, often organic foods, wild-caught fish and hormone-free meats. Waitress Jessica Dunham carries an order to waiting diners.

Rosenberg’s favorite dishes include Chicken Gwin Jin, Sesame Beef and vegetable soup. His wife usually orders a lobster or shrimp dish, which Rosenberg says is always fresh. The Rosenbergs appreciate that Silver Palace is willing to make changes upon request. “The food is cooked to order, and they are always accommodating if you want something different or off the menu. My son is very picky. They always give him his own special meal that doesn’t have things in it he doesn’t want. They have been doing this for him since he was five years old, and he’s now 21.”

Silver Palace employs 14 people, “on and off,” says Wong, all of whom are local residents.

“A lot of Chinese restaurants import help from New York and Boston. We don’t have any employees from out-of-state.” Lee says. “We pay decent wages to our staff.”

The restaurant strives to provide good service to its patrons. “Customer service should be top grade,” Lee says. “We put an emphasis on training to pay attention to customers and give courteous, friendly service.”

According to Rosenberg, the idea of friendly service extends beyond the restaurant’s boundaries. “The owners are always there,” he says. “You’re not dealing with people who don’t care. We had a fire in our store, and they sent over complimentary food. Kenny [Wong] says to me, ‘We have a thing in my religion, that fire marks a new beginning.’ That meant a lot to us.”

Compared to other Chinese restaurants in the area, the food at Silver Palace is more expensive, but the portions are larger and the ingredients are top quality, says Lee. “Chinese restaurants have a reputation for being cheap. But food-for-food, we are not more expensive than most American-style restaurants. We use fresh vegetables, no canned goods. Our meat is high quality. We don’t use any products from China. We use local Vermont products.”

With recent news about the poor quality of fish imported from China, the origin of food has become very important to customers. Silver Palace purchases seafood and produce from Black River Produce, a local-foods distributor in North Springfield.

The restaurant aims to serve healthy foods, including fresh produce, wild-caught fish and hormone-free meats. “We are trying to go more toward organic vegetables and free-range meats. Our customers demand it,” Wong says.

The Silver Palace menu evolves throughout the year with new offerings and improved items. Lee and Wong mingle with customers and ask what they like and don’t like, and Ng frequently tries new or revised dishes out to see how they will sell. For example, he recently reinvented the wonton.

“At most Chinese restaurants, a wonton is a piece of thick dough with a little piece of meat inside. For the last 20 years, we used the same wonton, and it served us well,” Ng says.

“I recently tried using a thinner dough and more filling that is fluffier and juicier. It contains pork, vegetable and mushroom, like a dim sum. In my opinion, it tastes better and is a great improvement. I say let the customer decide, and the verdict is still out.” •