Pardon My Sweat, and Pass the Borscht

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Pardon My Sweat, and Pass the Borscht


So much sweat. I was sitting in one of several sauna rooms available at the Mermaid Spa, the luxurious Russian bathhouse in Coney Island, and wondering whether my eyebrows were going to spontaneously combust. That’s when the guy standing up on the higher bench behind me — an even hotter place to be — started slapping himself vigorously with a wet bundle of leaves. The process is splashy, and the droplets raining down on me were, no doubt, a combination of what came off the soaked leaves and my neighbor’s sweat. I thought of moving to the other side of the room, but the water was cooling me off a little, and frankly, I was less grossed out than mildly grateful.

Instead of moving, then, I thought for a moment about the venik, which is the Russian word for that soggy bundle. Those leaves might traditionally be oak or birch, but it has been a long time since I had to go outside with the kids for one of those elementary-school leaf identification projects. Also, how close did I want to get to the guy scourging himself to scrutinize his foliage?

Let’s say oak.

I had come here on a recent Saturday with Monroe Smith, a buddy from my college days in Austin, Tex., who, like me, ended up in the Greatest City in the World after graduation. We were born a day apart and celebrate our birthdays together, generally with a nice meal. This year we were reaching a round number of intimidating size and wanted to do something different. Bigger.

Why not Russian baths? I had read about such places for years but had never been to one. Smith was my expert, in this and so many other things. (He’s also a chef, and during a 1988 Robert Burns birthday celebration at a Mexican restaurant introduced New York to the haggis tamale.) True to our birthday tradition, we decided on the Mermaid Spa because it also has a full-service restaurant serving Eastern European fare.

In the 1980s, Smith was a regular patron of the Russian and Turkish Baths in the East Village. The old guys at the baths, he said, used to call the ritual a “kvetch und shvitz.”

We got to the baths, or banya, and paid our way in, $45 apiece. “Are you 62? There’s a discount,” the woman at the door said, crushing our egos. Not yet, we replied, and walked into the dressing room, where a group of 16-year-old boys was getting dressed and joking around. They had come to the banya with a friend and his dad in honor of the young man’s birthday. It was our first sign that this was not going to be the kvetch-und-shvitz crowd.

The sprawling complex looks like a lodge inside, with the smell of roasting wood and a hint of chlorine. There was a mix of older and younger customers on the day of our visit, women and men; we weren’t the oldest there, but the average age was younger.

There are various ways to sweat at the Mermaid Spa, including three wood-paneled Russian steam rooms, a tile-lined Turkish bath, a Russian dry sauna with large, exposed stones emitting heat, and a big hot tub. There are several ways to cool down between the scorchings, as well.

When I called Boris Kotlyar, the owner, a few days after our visit, he told me he has owned the Mermaid Spa for nearly 20 years. The place had a disastrous fire in 2006. “We were closed for three years,” he said, “basically rebuilding from the scratch.” During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, just a few inches of water damaged some equipment, but the structure was left intact. “We were lucky,” he said. “After the fire, we deserved lucky.”

Each room is different, he told me: The Turkish sauna is just 120 degrees but has nearly 100 percent humidity. The less moist sauna rooms are maintained at temperatures of 150, 165 and 180 degrees. “They are all different in temperature and humidity,” he told me, “but basically the final effect is to get sweated. That’s what it comes to.”

Smith and I had decided to experience everything the Mermaid could provide. Wearing swim trunks and sandals — Smith left his University of Texas T-shirt over a chair to claim a table — we first walked into one of the Russian saunas. I sat on the lowest of the wooden benches, placing a towel down first so that the heat-absorbing wood wouldn’t scorch my behind. We sat across from each other and did what people do in the saunas: sweated and talked. The reason he had gotten so familiar with the baths in the ’80s, he explained, was that he’d been living aboard a boat at the 79th Street Boat Basin. During the winter, he was chilled to the bone. But after hours of heat and steam, “you could get warm enough,” he said.

I was taking notes in a small spiral-bound notepad. The coils touched the skin of my arm, and I jumped — they had gotten hot enough to burn me.

After about 10 minutes of the intense, dry heat, we stepped out. There are three showers; two have temperature controls. The other has a chain. Pull down the chain, and an enormous amount of icy water courses down, a breathtaking torrent. I pulled the chain, and as the water struck, a strangled curse escaped me.

Now that I was chilled, of course, the only thing I wanted was to warm up again. Into a sauna we went. There we encountered two young men with light Russian accents, blissed out in the heat haze.

“This is my honeymoon of the weekend,” said Luze Stengel, adding that he makes it a priority to come to the baths for a good sweat at least once a month.

His friend Chuck Rosenberg said: “This is my rehab. Every time I have a great Friday night party, I come to the Mermaid to detox.” On his left biceps, Chuck has an intricate tattoo of a Star of David, and in the middle of the star is the circle-A symbol for anarchy.

The two men urged us to try the ice bath, a small pool fed with a fountain of water and chopped ice. “Jump in all at once” from the side, Chuck said; nothing gradual.

As we neared the ice bath, another regular had his own advice: “Do it gradually.” Walk down some steps, get chest deep in the water and then duck under. Smith went first. He took the steps, got chest deep and dipped his head under the water, coming out wide-eyed. I did the same. Excruciating. I knew I would be doing it again.

As I walked toward the next sauna, I realized I was barefoot. My sandals were back at the ice bath. I could not find them. I looked around, walked away, walked back and finally saw them around the corner of the tub, where they had been all the while. The shock of the cold had sent me into some kind of brain lock: I was frozen stupid.

Smith and I then tried the Turkish bath, its billowing clouds of moisture so thick that it was hard to see across the tiled room. As Boris said, the temperature was lower in there, but the high humidity made the heat harder to tolerate for long; science tells us that it’s the heat and the humidity that make for misery.

We went back out. Dunked in the ice bath. Cursed. Forgot my sandals again. After another couple of cycles, we were ready to eat.

The menus are large, offering a variety of Russian dishes, as well as items like Buffalo wings.



The Russian items looked both inviting and intimidating. There is hot borscht and many varieties of dumplings, including some made with fried liver, carrots and onions. I mentioned the Buffalo wings to the server, Valeria, with a quizzical look; she agreed that this was not the Russian experience we were looking for. “No, no, no, no-no,” she said in an insistent murmur.

We ordered borscht, which she applauded as a good plan. We mentioned the “salo,” thin slices of cured pork fat, and she smiled hugely.

Then I pointed to the liver dumplings, but she gestured as if to slap my hand and shook her head, with that “no, no, no, no-no” again. “Potato,” she said. Why? I asked.

She waved her hand as if to evoke an aesthetic: “It’s the composition.”

Then she asked if we wanted beer. We declined. She beamed and said, “Vodka!” Well, no. Smith has been sober five years, and I would be driving home after all of this. She was clearly disappointed in us. “Just a little vodka?” she asked, and placed her fingertip a fraction of an inch above the table. “It will help you sleep later.” I mentioned the probability of my falling asleep while crossing the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge on the way back to New Jersey, and we finally agreed on mineral water — “Georgian,” she said brightly — and blisteringly hot tea.

That is when I noticed the variety of felt hats around the room. Some people wrap towels around their heads in the steam rooms. Others wear felt hats to keep cool, and the variety is infinite. Some look like helmets, some, well, foreskins. A gentleman across the way had a hat with a yellow hammer and sickle against a red star. Another’s resembled a purple Santa hat. My favorite: a felt Viking helmet. With horns. “I had to order it specifically from Ukraine,” the young man told me. “On Etsy.”

The food came. The borscht was as good as I’ve ever had; I was so hungry I forgot to put the sour cream in. No matter. It was rich and hearty without it. The salo was a challenge: two rows of the glistening slices on the plate. The rim of one set of slices was red. What’s the difference? I asked the server.

“One is red,” she said.

Smith and I decided it was paprika.

Valeria warned that the dollop of mustard served with the plate of salo is very hot. There were also raw garlic and scallions. There is a technique that she showed us: Take the black bread. Spread a tiny bit of the mustard. Add the fat. Bite. Take a bite of the raw garlic.

We did this repeatedly. The flavors explode, one after another. At one point, I put too much of the mustard on my slice of bread and had trouble breathing. But this, too, passed. And I had another bite of the raw garlic.

The potato dumplings were chewy. The composition was, in fact, close to perfect. Smith noted that the vodka has a purpose: It’s a degreaser, and would cut the heaviness. “Russian food’s a lot better with the vodka,” he said. Nonetheless, we desisted.

After lunch, Smith and I walked outside to a patio, where people were stretched out on lawn chairs in the sun. We then slipped into the Ice Cave, a small room whose walls are coated in ice. It has a low ceiling and heavy wooden chairs. It was quiet, peaceful. Also very cold. We could see our breath. Smith regaled me with the story of a New York restaurant owner who, years ago, accidentally locked his chef inside the walk-in freezer overnight. A friend of Smith’s found the body the next morning.

Thoroughly chilled, we left the ice room.

We then found a spot we had not noticed before: the hottest Russian banya. It has bigger rocks. It is by far the hottest room we’ve been in. We stayed long enough to feel sautéed in our sweat.

Sweat. Dunk. Curse. Repeat. We stepped into another sauna, where a guy was lying down on the top bench, and a man stood over him, gently striking him with a venik, performing the massage called the platza.

After countless cycles, my legs felt rubbery and my aging back, which that morning had been giving me warning twinges, was utterly limber. In the last steam room, we stayed a little longer than we had before.

“Smith,” I gasped, “I think my Butterball thermometer just popped up.”

We settled our bill. On top of the $45 entry fee, the food cost another $50.

As we walked out, Valeria was taking a cigarette break. “See you next week?” she asked.