To Schvitz, Perchance to Feast

Reveling in the rituals and refreshments at a no nonsense South Brooklyn banya

At the corner of Mermaid Avenue and 37th Street in Sea Gate, sandwiched between Surf and Neptune, lives a hidden Brooklyn oasis. Each visit promises a thorough refresh, with something of a feast to aid in your detox. Mermaid Spa is a straightforward, but not bare-bones, fairly traditional banya owned by Zina and Boris Kotlyar and Joseph Feldsherov. The spa boasts three Russian steam rooms, a dry sauna, a Turkish bath, two ice-water pools, a jacuzzi, and a large lodge-like restaurant and watering area.

Banyas have long been a staple in Russian health and wellness culture, a community tradition passed down over centuries. The banya practice is one of revitalization and clearing. Russian spa technique is less about gentle relaxation and more about vigor and catharsis. The idea is to agitate the body to sweat through successive, methodical heating and cooling: Hot sauna, cold plunge; Hot steam, cold plunge. This engagement with extremes stimulates blood flow and circulation, shocking the system into detoxification, and clearing out excess phlegm. The banya embodies the same philosophy as many other increasingly en vogue wellness practices like Wim Hoff breathing and daily cold showers, all believed to to decrease stress and increase longevity. Through the alternation between temperatures, one emerges alert and revitalized; however physically challenging it may seem, the pay-off reverberates significantly.

Upon arrival, Mermaid Spa feels markedly different from trendier places like Williamsburg’s Bath House or Noho’s Great Jones Spa. It’s not a sexy zen club, but a communal ritualized space with lighting that is… totally fine. No infrared saunas, no pink salt rooms, no massages. More utilitarian, fewer essential oils, and certainly no house music, it’s no-nonsense, but doesn’t lack for anything.

The services are minimal, modestly priced, and effective. A traditional platza - the blood-stimulating service where a person gets massaged by a venik, or birch branch - is $50, while a full body scrub will run you $70. Most are performed in the steam room, against a backdrop of high humidity and heat.

I forgot my flip flops, but was pleased to find moderately chic ones available for purchase at check-in. Many regulars bring bathrobes, which I quickly envied. I also envied the Banya bonnets many were sporting, a statement accessory that prevents the head from overheating.

Begin by warming up in the hot tub. Next, roast in the sauna. When you can’t sit anymore, rush (carefully) to one of the two cold baths. Start up to the chest, then brace yourself and dunk. Next, inhale in the steam room, crunching your flip flops on dried birch leaves, casualties of platzas past strewn about the floor. Repeat, hot and then cold, hot and then cold. Drink water. Feel your body relax and the pins and needles reverberate their way out of your feet. Pop outside for a breath of air in the outside pool. Hydrate and exhaust yourself well. Then, eat.

The dining area feels like an all-day café, save for the presence of towels. You’ll sit among regulars playing cards and drinking beer and tea. A gentle murmur reverberates throughout the space, but nothing loud. Few people were on their phones, and there’s a respectfully observed no ringer or speakerphone policy. Though I was a bit damp, my digestion was primed.

Much like the space, service is no-frills and equally effective. We began with drinks: Tea arrived with a lush selection of jam, honey, and lemon; beers arrived in giant, satisfying frosted mugs. If anything, I was a bit overwhelmed by options and I'm already daydreaming of my next visit. I found myself coveting the fresh-squeezed juices, and amber glasses of kvass, a lightly effervescent low alcoholic refreshment with probiotic benefits. You wouldn’t go wrong with some traditional Russian vodka, which goes great with tomato juice.

And then the food! An impulse towards soup is a wise one. Solyanka is a traditional sour soup, bright, sharp, and satiating. We also ordered Ukrainian borscht, which glowed a luminous cranberry, with yogurt and dill to temper. After the hot soup, it was time to cool down (are you sensing a theme?). Avocado salad arrived a verdant green and felt hydrating. Grilled head-on shrimp are served with an addictive garlic butter sauce, and hearty brown bread to soak up any and all remains.

Glancing across the room, I took note of dishes next to playing cards, novels, plastic water cups, and mugs of beer, contemplating my own future orders. Among the other items that caught my eye: Ukrainian salo, a cured pork fat to spread on bread, home style beef tongue, herring with onions, pickled veg, and smoked vimba.

At first the “dough” section of the menu sounded a bit daunting, the translation perhaps inadvertently implying a heaviness, but I was surprised by how right a dumpling feels after being near-naked in extreme temperatures. Buttered meat and cheese dumplings were lighter than anticipated, with sweet caramelized onions to contrast the richness.

Dumplings might seem counterintuitive when you feel kind of like a warm dumpling, but such eating practices are rooted in reason: these foods restore salt that the body has lost. Fermented ingredients are frequently incorporated into dishes or served as accouterments. The pungent tang found in borscht, pickles, and naturally leavened bread activates the salivary glands and signals the body to anticipate digestion. The mouth readies itself, followed by the stomach.

After eating, take some time to sit at your table and digest. There is a serenity in the unspoken understanding that you wouldn’t be rushed out. Delight in one final soak in the sun, outside, imagining the gossip being exchanged in the smoking section, which is just as subdued and whispery as the café. Shower off, revel in the salt-ocean air, and do your best not to fall asleep on the train home.

Hot (cold) tip: You can take over the restaurant with a group of up to 30, or host up to twelve people in the Red or Birch Rooms. Groups can also take advantage of the banquet menu.