Love can take many forms. Imagine a day at work that has been so exhausting that you can't wait to sink into the couch at home, no longer required to listen or talk or even to do anything other than keep breathing. Then a good friend calls. She's having a crisis. She needs a friend. You pick yourself up, arrange to meet at a French restaurant (because French food is always of comfort) and remember that love knows no bounds when it comes to a friend in need.
Ile de France was the perfect venue for our rendezvous; the semi-circular dining room large and spacious enough to ensure some privacy, the lighting subdued enough to disguise anyone showing signs of distress and the walls adorned with large black and white photographs of that wonderfully enchanting city, Paris, would hopefully remind us that life endures all manner of trials and tribulations. Admittedly, the red and white cane cafe furniture positioned outside on the pavement proved a tad misleading, as inside the furnishings are more reminiscent of the former Mecca cafe but it's a fabulous and surprising space and, as I'd not been there under its previous incarnation, I found it appealing.
We selected a table by the window and our French waiter, whether he noticed that one of us was not in the best shape or not, gave nothing away as he went through the blackboard specials and then kindly suggested he bring us glasses of wine to "elp with your making of decisions". Throughout the evening he came and went with the professional grace of someone who knows when his customers prefer to remain undisturbed.
One of the striking features of French cuisine is how simple food can be so rich. The menu at Ile de France is a classic example of this - it's full of gutsy, hearty fare, perhaps due to Chef Gilles Papst hailing from the Alsace region. Entree choices include escargots in garlic and red wine, grilled prawns with saffron aioli, the obligatory duck liver pate and rillettes de porc, that wonderful, fatty slow-cooked terrine, which I ended up going with. Chunky pieces of pork had been cooked down and pressed into small, individual jars which made for cute presentation. Briny gherkins and sharp Dijon mustard were the ideal companions to cut through the lard and I was, quite frankly, in pig's heaven slathering it on warm, toasted sourdough. Meanwhile I could see my friend was trying to muster enough of an appetite to at least look as though she was enjoying her grilled prawns but knowing her mind was elsewhere, I offered to help out. While she wept, I ate. The half dozen prawns were okay but not sensational and the aioli, though lemony enough, showed no sign of the proclaimed saffron.
As the room began to fill with other diners, our mains arrived and then a strange thing began to happen to my dear friend. At the sight of her meal - a huge pile of bright green asparagus served on a wooden board and topped with crushed boiled egg, cured ham and watercress - she bucked herself up like a brave little pony, declared she was "sick of talking about it" and began tucking in. Like magic, her mood lifted. With the help of fresh, seasonal summer produce, she had successfully un-slumped herself. And isn't that just the beauty and benefit of fine food? Comfort eating is often given a bad rap but eating out, in calm surrounds, being waited on by staff with sexy French accents - where's the harm? And the food at Ile de France is plenty good enough to take comfort in. I enjoyed lamb shoulder, rendered soft after seven hours of slow-cooking, served with velvety aubergines. It was full of flavour and rustic charm. A bowl of small, perla potatoes, had had the deluxe treatment by being roasted in duck fat and they were another instant spirit-lifter with their crunchy skins and creamy texture.
Desserts proved to be a strong finish with a creme brulee, served with a gorgeous buttery biscuit and fresh strawberries soaked in Sauternes, and a darling little glass of colourful layers, verrine-style, of white chocolate mousse, raspberry jelly and pistachio crumble. Both were sublime and each sweet mouthful was enough to dispel my friend's woes, at least temporarily.
Ile de France isn't overly ambitious or adventurous and eating there is unlikely to be a transformational experience but as we left, I commented that life presents enough challenges of its own accord that it's nice when eating out is easy and uncomplicated. My friend smiled and couldn't have agreed more.
From the menu: Pork rillettes $17.50, grilled prawns $18.50, asparagus with egg & ham $18.50, seven-hour lamb shoulder $31.50, perla potatoes $8.50, verrine chocolat blanc $14.50, creme brulee $14.50
Drinks: Fully licensed