THEY CALL IT VERTICAL integration, and everyone's doing it: merging different businesses into one in order to achieve economies of scale. We've seen it in the oil industry, computers, retail, publishing and now hospitality.
What were three distinct brands on the first floor of ivy - the Mad Cow steakhouse, the frenetic ivy bar and the city-centre outpost of Sailor's Thai - have disappeared. Instead, the Merivale group has reworked the enormous atrium space into a New Age marketplace known as Palings Kitchen and Bar. While you can still get a beer, cocktails, grilled steak or green chicken curry, everything has been integrated into a single entity, for better or worse. And indeed, some things are better, and some are worse.
It's a barn of a place, hovering between contemporary beer garden and timbered woolshed decked out ready for the annual Bachelors and Spinsters Ball. A wooden hut with fold-up windows is home to Paling's main kitchen, where former Mad Cow chef Christopher Whitehead still grills a mean steak; only now he's also turning out New York deli sandwiches, salads and a daily roast. Another little wooden shack is home to Sunee's Thai canteen and downstairs, tucked around the corner, is Lorraine's Patisserie, where gun patissier Lorraine Godsmark is spreading sweetness and light. And, of course, there are bars left, right and centre.
Palings (pronounced Parlings) was named in homage to W.H.Paling, a music-mad Dutchman who set up the Paling music store in the area in the mid-19th century. ''Paling'' is also Dutch for eel, which explains the presence of a ''traditional smoked eel and chips'' ($11.50) on the menu. Trad means the presence of creamy potato salad and tangy green sauce - I'm not entirely sure it means a teriyaki glaze on the eel, or strewing the lot with thin potato chips, but that's fine.
In fact, few things are as they seem at Paling's, a trend that will read as cute and cheeky to some, and just plain annoying to others. The pie of the day (beef and mushroom, $16) is not so much a pie as a small pastie-cum-curry puff affair that doesn't express its pieness, alongside a rough-hewn Caesarish salad. Mussels in a spicy pork and fennel broth ($25) are neither spicy nor porky, although the small, overcooked molluscs are at least weighed down with wads of shaved fennel. Grilled skewers are the best order, threaded with a Vietnamese meatball, cuttlefish, prawn and meltingly soft pork belly, served with sawtooth, basil, shiso, betel and coriander leaves and a nuoc mam/coconut water dressing ($17.50).
It all takes a bit of getting used to, especially at night when the bar side of things starts to heave. If you book into the Palings restaurant space, you'll get chatty table service; otherwise, you're on your own. And don't try to order a glass of wine at the bar and come back for food later or you'll have to hand over a credit card, driver's licence AND name and mobile number, then go through hell at the end of the night trying to get a bill.
With Merivale Group sommelier Franck Moreau integrated throughout the business, the juice side of things is not an issue. He's kept things kitchen-simple, with a concise list of old and new worlders at reasonable prices. So Merivale's own Jasper sauvignon blanc from Marlborough is light, fresh and uncomplicated plonk for $8 a glass and $38 a bottle.
When it's time to vertically integrate a little dessert into the system, it's hard to go past Godsmark's fat little building block of toasty coconutty joy that is the strawberry mascarpone ($12), a legacy from her early days working with Neil Perry at Rockpool. The systems work better by day, making it handy for an office lunch of a chunky sandwich made with Pepe Saya butter or a nicely done rare wagyu beef salad from Sunee's Thai.
Ultimately, it's not very different from what it was - a great big bar with various dining and drinking options that suit the business crowd by day and the pleasure crowd at night. It's just that now it feels a bit more together.
Best bit Sunny and civilised by day.
Worst bit Noisy and shouty at night.
Go-to dish Strawberry mascarpone, $12.
Palings Kitchen and Bar
Address Level 1, ivy, 330 George Street, Sydney, phone 9240 3000, merivale.com/palings.
Open Mon-Fri, noon-late.
Cost About $85 for two, plus drinks.
How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.
13 Solid and satisfactory
15 Very good
16 Seriously good
20 The best of the best
Restaurants are reviewed again for The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide and scores may vary.