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Byron Shire
May 27, 2024

‘Nothing with a face’-value

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Served on a sizable platter, the alu kofta, green dahl and cashew sauce. Photo Matthew Michaelis

A husky yet soft voice speaks [voice-over]: ‘The following story is more like an incredible tale than it is a restaurant review’. I can imagine this narrative playing out on the big screen, and the marketing: ‘A futuristic, quirky comedy’. The synopsis would go something like this: ‘A genius vegan scientist travels back in time to the 70s where he invents world-changing medical equipment and lives off the royalties as he hitches from one place to another, often shoeless, searching for himself in the future, in the past and in present time…’

This is an eatery that comes with a short story and an initial advisory note for the conservative diner – there’s a pot of gold at the end of this rickety rainbow – and it’s the food (bear with me).

The above synopsis is more like a proper introduction than a figment of my imagination – it’s mostly true (with the exception of the time-travel bit, although I do wonder sometimes). The person I’m speaking of is Marijonas (‘Mari’) Vilkelis: the creator, cook and gentle philosopher behind the 20,000 Cows vegan restaurant in Lismore. There may be a few folk out there who already know this eccentric ageing hippy. He’s the Santa Claus of the metaphysical, the gift that keeps giving. Personally, I met Mari when I was around 15 years old (a few decades ago). My older brother had earlier given him a ride to Sydney and I became acquainted by default. He visited me on his way up north, back when the term vegan was not a familiar tag and the philosophy attached to it was neither understood nor tolerated. He’d been an award-winning scientist – an inventor of medical machines that were sought after – but he sought after something else.

When you come across an individual in your life who transcends societal norms it can be confronting or cathartic. When you meet a fringe dweller who is an extraordinary person, it doesn’t take too long to recognise the fact. Mari is both extraordinary and mystifying at the same time. He is the quintessential vegan, but his commitment does not come from politics; he is not primarily motivated by anger about the status quo. Some time in this man’s life he recognised that death and abuse shouldn’t be accepted, absorbed into or made to seem okay in one’s daily life.

My entree into veganism was through Mari and my pet sulphur-crested cockatoo, Claudius. This was a wild unclipped bird that lived in a sizeable cage in my home when I was a teen. Mari on a visit was offered a fried egg and promptly suggested I might climb into the cage and he’d feed me my eggs through the wire. He then promptly released the bird from his prison (it took me three hours to return him to his detention) and left me a-wondering about the insanity of it all. Three months went by and then a parcel arrived addressed simply to ‘Claudius’; the padded envelope contained a brand-new set of wire cutters with no return address or sender. Mari, I imagined.

Mari the gentle philosopher behind 20,000 Cows. Photo Matthew Michaelis
Mari the gentle philosopher behind 20,000 Cows. Photo Matthew Michaelis

Well, many years later and the only thing that’s changed is that the money from royalties ran out and a restaurant was created in its stead. Thirty-seven years have passed since my cockatoo escaped his cage and here I sit tasting a surprisingly sumptuous menu prepared by Mari at 20,000 Cows.

Entrees were ordered and my guest and I slowly took in the ramshackle decor. It reminded me of a teenager’s shared flat, needing a good long visit from an energetic older sibling to vacuum and set things right, do the dishes, paint the walls and wash the throw covers. This place is not to be judged by current restaurant standards; there is munificent goodness waiting and certainly not the sort that is dictated by fashion and face value.

The menu cover states the philosophy of ‘Ashram’, Mari’s keen statement and firm credo:

All animal products are intentionally omitted from food prepared and served on these premises.  Known GM ingredients are also excluded. Ashram is the proclamation of sanctuary or haven for all beings. This ashram announces this proclamation…

… The numerical figure (20,000) denotes a symbolic estimate of creatures that, consequent to the ashram project, … have never existed. The world is therefore void of their servitude, suffering and death. Thank you for helping make the world a little gentler. Hence the 20,000 Cows.

Here the menu is large with choices from international, Indian and Middle Eastern fare.

Mellawah encircled by a lake of good and rich tomato sauce. Photo Matthew Michaelis

Mellawah is a dish that originates in the Yemen. It comes here on an oval platter, a shallow-fried pastry, like a punt, long and majestic, floating on the Red Sea. The top-deck is filled with a diced cooked mushroom topping, the lot plump and encircled by a lagoon of good and rich tomato sauce with a deep chilli spike to it. The sauce was too hot for my friend, but I love the spicy, so I sweated through it. Alu kofta is a crisp potato dumpling that’s been deep fried instead of boiled. Four delicate examples of these croquettes were brought forth on a sizeable platter. The alu kofta enjoyed a good steeping in an exceptional green pea dahl, each crowned with a fabulous cashew sauce. The whole affair was pleasingly presented with picture-perfect iceberg lettuce cupping a fresh salad all flecked with edible flowers. These dishes came with the feeling that you really couldn’t expect any more care.

I’m a writer on food and as such all the goodness and shenanigans from farm to plate must be attended to and fairly dealt with. It does warm my heart though to think that people like Mari exist and their attempts at balancing the world are recognised and welcomed by many as a gentle reminder of our need for temperance, compassion and kindness.

20,000 Cows
Vegan cuisine. From 6.30pm
58 Bridge Street, Lismore
Phone: 6622 2517
Booking advised but not necessary

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