The Ivy is a mecca for good times to some, but others aren't so charmed by its "pick-up central" reputation. It's the lynchpin of Justin Hemmes' Merivale empire, but since dining has overtaken drinking in the entertainment group's ambitions, the focus has pulled away from the multi-storey haven of debauchery to nearby Mr Wong.
The middle bar of The Ivy hasn't changed in a while. Its Gold Coast umbrellas and wicker chairs were getting dusty. Now, bang in the middle of the main bar, sits Palings. Having gotten rid of some of the walled areas and the darker confines of the Ivy, it's certainly now more open and brighter.
Since Mad Cow closed last year, Mr Wong has taken the spotlight in the Merivale world. But with Palings, chef Chris Whitehead seems to catering for all tastes. There's a Thai street cart for the lunch crowd, a daily roast option, reasonably priced sandwiches, and (great for groups) numerous sharing options.
The menu is divided between the deli section (thick-crusted sandwiches and rolls, $11-15) that globetrots from India to Italy and Germany; salads; snacks for sharing, such as chicken wings and arancini; shell fish; and miscellaneous numbers like pork schnitty and slaw. Add the grill section, and the daily roast and desserts, and you've got a busy kitchen. It's a Roman feast if you're up for it, but picking and choosing in a group would seem to be the way to go, or you'll never make a dent in the menu.
For a light-ish lunch, the salads are pretty, and pretty wholesome and impressive. Roasted cauliflower, pomegranate, fennel, and lime ($14) is a good way to combat the claustrophobic summer heat, and with the snow peas and basil with mozzarella grilled on lemon leaves ($12.50), it's a good combo.
The zesty ceviche, a popular choice around Sydney now what with the inundation of South American cuisine, has a smattering of yellowtail, scallops, and prawn with chilli, corn, and avocado ($23), and the beef sirloin with horseradish ($25, Friday's roast selection) is a relatively heavy accompaniment.
Meanwhile, Sunee's Thai Canteen is an inexpensive and generously varied alternative. There's the obligatory spring rolls (prawn with plum sauce, $9 for two), spiced calamari ($15), and beef salad (wagyu, with sticky rice, $14). But there's also more ambitious dishes such as khao mok gai (chicken and rice braised in tumeric and chilli, $17) and kanom jin pla (shredded fish in curry, with sticky rice noodles and fish balls, $15) that is in effect an entirely different restaurant a few metres away from the main action at Palings.
It's a bit of a sensory overload, dealing with the buzz of the crowd, the busy renovations, and two competing menus to choose from. Perhaps the plan was to get diners back to try a different selection next time. The plan works.
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320 George Street, Sydney