Is there anything better than sweating in a fiery sauna and eating borscht? The Russians don’t think so. The Mermaid Spa, in Coney Island, is a Russian-Ukrainian community center that features a circular hot tub, two ice water tile pools, steam room, sauna, and a rustic-style dinning room guarded by golden mermaids. The decor is best described as Weeki Wachee, Florida (the only city of live mermaids) meets “Eastern Promises,” the Russian gangster film staring Viggo Mortenson, albeit with softer lighting and more herb-scented air. To those uninitiated in traditional Russian banyas, the Mermaid Spa might seem like just another kitschy Coney Island attraction. But this Brooklyn jewel is the real deal and the closest thing people in New York get to enjoying a day at a Russian spa.
The Mermaid Spa serves a buffet of classic Russian dishes. There are hearty meat entrees such as a lamb leg, beef stroganoff and chicken tabaka, which are probably best enjoyed after you bake in the sauna, get lost in the fog of the steam room, and plunge like an arctic polar bear into one of the spa’s ice pools. If just the “idea” of a hefty, Peter the Great-style feast already has you busting out of your bathing suit, opt instead for the hot appetizers. Thick borscht, garlicky French fries, and pelmeni filled with beef, lamb or veal are classic banyan staples. Nevertheless, after all the heat and steam, your body shocked into a state of jelly, perhaps Mermaid Spa’s cold appetizers are the best choice. Pickled herring is a popular favorite, while the more daring gourmands should try salo, which is raw pig lard that’s been frozen, sliced thin, and rubbed with a raw garlic glove. It’s served on brown bread.