"The smell of chlorine emanating from the concrete building is the first hint that Mermaid Spa, in Coney Island, isn’t Spa Castle. There are no crystal rooms, no “color therapy” experiences, and, thankfully, no uniforms reminiscent of a totalitarian regime. This is a Ukrainian-Russian community center, a blustery twenty-minute walk from the subway, as traditional as banyas get in New York City, with a clientele that takes its sweating very seriously. There is, happily, also a restaurant, which serves some solid Russian classics.
The dining room, guarded by golden mermaids, is built around a hot tub. There are older men in groups; younger, shiny men in groups; and fit couples throwing back plastic pints of beer. Everyone is wearing towels, and most are in felt hats that, counterintuitively, help with the heat. Claim a table — it’s yours for the day — and head into the sauna. Sweat until you can’t stand it, and escape to the cold shower. Pull the chain and a torrent of ice water rushes over you. Then go to the steam room and get lost in the fog, before plunging into the ice pools. Jump out, gasp for breath, and feel your head pound with shock and relief. Repeat until you’re jelly, and then it’s time to eat.
Many tables stick with giant bottles of water and platters of fresh fruit. But you came for the food, so go for it. The large meat dishes — lamb leg, beef stroganoff, chicken tabaka — are hefty in a way that seems ill-advised in the setting. The hot appetizers are a better idea. The borscht is rich and thick. The garlicky French fries, piled on a sizzling iron skillet, though not exactly what you’d picture eating in a bathing suit, are a banya staple. Even more traditional are the pelmeni, filled with beef, lamb, and veal, and topped with mushroom gravy, which are addictive until they congeal at room temperature. Luckily, the dish is too good to leave for long. The best, though, are the cold appetizers, especially the pickled herring or, if you dare, the salo — raw pig lard, frozen and sliced thin. The procedure is half the fun: Layer it over some brown bread. Salt it. Pick up a raw garlic clove. Salt that. Bite one, then the other. The sharp fire of the raw garlic gives way to the sweetness of the bread, and to the soothing fat as it melts. It’s more bracing than the ice pools.
On the way out, do yourself a favor and stop by the beach, whose winter charm doesn’t get enough credit. The steam rises off your skin. The coastline extends as far as you can see, populated by no one. What a gift the quiet is. (Spa entrance $45; dishes $4-$30.)"