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  • Ethan Manera

Twelve Meals, Four Critics, One Sitting: Eating My Way Through Wellington’s Newest Food Court

Words by Ethan Manera (he/him)

Willis Lane flaunts itself as “an exceptional curation of bars and eateries” with an “eclectic ensemble of vendors, gourmet wonders, curious attractions, and interactive experiences”, but what makes it different from any other Wellington CBD food court? I pulled together a rag-tag team of hungry third-years to put this new establishment to the ultimate test.

We set out to try one meal from each of Willis Lane's 12 vendors, to see if this new eatery really lives up to the hype. 

Disclosure: Willis Lane paid me back (bc cozzy livs), but had no control over what I wrote.

Red Lantern 6/10

We parked up in a comfortable booth at Red Lantern to try out their buffet of what they describe as “imaginative twists” on Chinese dishes. We got a $18 large plate and filled it with a combo of all they had to offer. The beauty of a buffet is your ability to load the boat until you get a dirty look from the staff. The szechuan chicken was an absolute stand out: good level of heat and perfectly cooked veggies. The fried rice: bland. The sweet and sour pork: average. Overall, it's a safe option. Chinese food catered to Pākehā taste buds.

Hot Like A Mexican 8/10

The first thing we noticed about Hot Like A Mexican was the steep price. Whether you wanted two tacos, one burrito, or the quesadilla, it would set you back about the same price as a five-pack of Wellington City Council rubbish bags. Additions, like guacamole, come at an extra price. Despite this, the chicken quesadilla was the finest quesadilla I've ever had, packed full of high quality, fresh ingredients, with a deliciously fiery salsa. They do lose points for not having any slushy margaritas available, despite being on the menu.

Nam Nam 6.5/10

Nam Nam promises authentic Vietnamese street food. We ordered the chicken fried rice and roast duck cuốn (rice paper rolls). The fried rice was tasty but not very flavourful—more of a side than a main. The cuốn was pleasantly refreshing, although we would have appreciated a bit more flavour from their famous roasted duck. Nam Nam is like a close friend’s flatmate: they're nice, but you wouldn't go out of your way to hang out. Enjoyable, but forgettable.

Downlow 9/10

At this point, Willis Lane was getting busy, but Downlow unfortunately was not. We ordered a double smashed cheeseburger, fries, and a chocolate thickshake which totaled $26. George considers himself something of a burger connoisseur, and in his words, “Downlow didn't disappoint.” The presentation was immaculate, and the burger was just as delightful: a plush bun, beef patty, fresh red onion, and a briney pickle. It’s what I imagine a real life Krabby Patty would taste like. The chips were perfectly seasoned, with a nice crinkle shape. The thickshake wasn't special. It was rather thin and had an artificial chocolate flavour. You can’t win ‘em all.

Crack Chicken 7/10 

This much-hyped modern fried chicken joint is the latest creation of influential Auckland restaurateur David Lee. Drooling in anticipation, we went for the original fried chicken burger and fries. Our excitement soon turned to distress. The bottom bun was completely soggy with grotesque purple coleslaw discharge. As I tried to take my first bite, the structure of the burger crumbled. While the chicken itself was good, it was too large for the sodden bun, and the burger fell to pieces. The seasoned fries were bussin though.

Wasabi Sushi 6/10

You would be forgiven for not noticing Wasabi Sushi if you power walked through Willis Lane really fast. I hope their rent is cheap. Ailish tried the prawn sushi and said it's “more fishy than one would expect”. The rice was incredibly sticky which helped each piece stay together nicely. The batter to prawn ratio was dubious, making the $14 price sting. One thing I appreciate about Wasabi Sushi is its unmatched convenience: the grab n go system means it’s perfect for any yo-pro trying to make the most of their short lunch break. 

Rick’s Cheesesteaks 7.5/10

At this point in our culinary endeavour we were struggling. The thought of a beefy roll covered in nuclear-yellow cheese elicited cold sweats. We got the classic beef cheesesteak with the ambiguous “cheese wiz”. The thing felt like one of those big UE Booms. The taste could only be described as very savoury. “If I was starving, this would go down a treat,” George uttered while going down on the cheesy hoagie. Rick provided perfect bulking if you're a gym bro. 

Angry Ramen 9/10

The staff here were very nice. I’m actually unsure what is angry about this place at all. We ordered a chicken katsu donburi bowl. It was ready quickly and the presentation was fantastic. Salty and delectable chicken, a good amount of sauce, and the little side salad was appreciated. Ruby described it as “a really solid meal”. For $16.90, it's a little on the expensive side, but so is fucking everything these days.

Wilson BBQ 6/10

We ordered a platter for one, which boasts the brisket, pulled pork, ribs, and BBQ smoked sausage, a bread roll, potato salad, and coleslaw. This clocked in at a mighty $35.90— highway robbery as far as I’m concerned. The rib (singular) was deliciously smokey and the brisket was beefy. George reckoned the sausage was an underdog, and the pulled pork was so doused in sauce it was unenjoyable. The sides were a non-event. Wilson BBQ was tasty, but the price made it unjustifiable. If you were a wealthy alpha-male type who loves a meaty treat, this would be ideal for you.

Foo Du Dumplings 5/10

The questionable variety of food sloshing around in our stomachs was taking its toll. Ailish took one for the team and tried the prawn dim sum herself. As far as prawn dim sum goes, she said it was incredibly chewy, and rather wet, “which didn't get me excited”. Upon chewing the dumpling, Ailish reported something bizarrely crunchy. 

Nyonya Malaysia 8/10 

“Chicken curry with roti”—a simple name which piqued my interest. Costing $16.90, with $4 for a side of rice, this  curry was bussin. Perfect amount of heat and tremendously flavourful. It had hearty chunks of chicken and soft cubes of potato. We were also caught off guard by the blue rice. Turns out this is a Malaysian thing. Very cool.

Corso Pastaria 6/10

I was really excited for Corso. It's by far the biggest restaurant in Willis Lane, offering six different pastas alongside antipasti, salad, and desserts. We mistakenly asked the staff what the best pasta was, and the kind gentleman suggested beef cheek ragu. Unfortunately, he was wrong. The pasta was disappointing. There was barely any sauce, just stray pieces of beef cheek strewn around the bowl. Taste wise, it was unimpressive. The tiramisu was a divine saving grace—creamy, sweet, velvety. I’ll be back, Corso, but I won't be asking your staff for advice next time.


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