The Vicarious Travel Society makes a point of attempting to seek out and visit restaurants that offer the most authentic experience of a nation’s cuisine. South-Western Bathhouse, for sheer sensory overload, may well be the cultural food experience to rule them all. It’s certainly the only place we’ve been to that provides towels, robes and flip flops, and the only place that has smacked us (upon request) with tree branches.
There are something in the order of 250,000 Russians living in the GTA, and they have quietly set about catering to their own needs by establishing banyas. All around the city, in Thornhill, North York, Mississauga, and elsewhere, tucked away in nondescript buildings there are Russian baths, which generally involve some combination of a large sauna, steam rooms, pools, lounging areas and usually some sort of bar and/or food services. They range from grubby and utilitarian to sleek and well appointed. They are almost universally patronized by the Russian community, men in particular, who go to immerse themselves in stifling steam heat, drink a little beer, do deals, get information, play chess. The first time I noticed one was from the 106 bus heading to or from York University, in January of 1999, on a soul-crushingly ugly stretch of Finch. The idea of going somewhere hot for a few hours seemed appealing, but wouldn’t I get in a knife fight with Viggo Mortensen (even if Eastern Promises wasn’t made until 2007)?
Fast forward to the current dismal winter of our discontent. Margie and I were discussing where to go next, and the idea of a banya proved just too alluring. Some trifling research quickly turned up South-Western Bathhouse in Mississauga, which had been visited and reviewed by no less than Saveur Magazine (!) and by far exceeded all rivals in the charm department, or at least most closely resembled Dr. Zhivago’s dacha:
A Russian colleague of Margie’s confirmed that South-Western was the best banya in town: after our first trip was aborted by a nasty snowstorm, we regrouped and tried again. It was a revelation, in more ways that one.
South-Western Bathhouse is in a strip mall in Mississauga, but more accurately, it is hidden in a narrow alley running down the blank brick side wall of a stripmall. The entrance is heralded by a small red awning:
Not much of a marker, there’s no way on earth anyone will just stumble over this place, but it’s easy enough to find if you know what you’re looking for. To open this unassuming door is to enter another world: a half-timbered, rustic world of homemade sausage, Russian beer, Russian television and most importantly an impressive range of treatments, including a wood fired Russian sauna (wet heat) featuring one original brick from the Baths of Trajan in Rome, a traditional Turkish hammam (steam heat, beautifully finished with Iznik Turkish tiles), a dry heat Finnish sauna, a “shower” that dumps a bucket of freezing cold water on your head, and also a giant bucket of cold water that you can plunge yourself into completely. Charming details are everywhere:
Because it’s necessary to take breaks between saunas, there are wicker lounge chairs here and there outside the saunas as well as a large, dim room with couches where you can relax, chat, watch TV or play chess. And perhaps most importantly, there’s a little room with a kitchen at one end and some tables at the other, where the food and drinks come from. When you arrive, you pay the entry fee ($30.00 for adults, $15.00 for children) which includes unlimited time at the banya, a robe, towels, slippers, a quick tour of the premises, and the temporary use of a little stretchy numbered wristlet that has two different functions: it automatically opens your assigned locker in the little locker rooms, and it allows you to run a tab while in the banya so that no one has to touch (or think about) any money.
There are some extras, such as a honey and salt facial mask ($3.00), a dried venik ($20.00) or bunch of aromatic leaves you can smack yourself with in the sauna, a fresh venik ($25.00), or the services of a man who will professionally smack you with a fresh venik in the sauna ($30.00 for two separate beatings). Margie and I went for the beating (it can be shared by two people) and the facial mask, and headed for the cozy women’s change room:
The $30.00 admission fee includes self-serve bottomless tea of your choice in the little tea room: about a dozen varieties of tea are available, with hot water on tap and a large supply of tea pots and tea glasses held in elegant metal sleeves with handles. You can mix up teas as you wish:
If you don’t fancy tea, there is house-made kvas (a non-alcoholic slightly carbonated home-brew made from bread, fruit, sugar and water), juice, vodka, and several Russian lagers. We decided to hydrate with a little tea and then tried a few minutes in the Russian Sauna to warm up for the violence to come. I went first: I laid face down on the searing hot boards of the highest sauna bench, and then a lean but very strong little man wearing a felt hat and little else advanced upon me with two large bundles of fresh oak leaves that had been soaked in cold water for a precise amount of time. I heard the bundles whooshing warningly over my back and felt droplets of water hit my skin and instantly vapourize: then the rhythmical cycles of smacking, scraping and scratching began, the herbal scent growing stronger in the hot, heavy air. I was released, eventually, from the sauna with strict instructions: jump into the cold plunge pool, then take the freezing cold bucket shower, then a regular hot shower, then sit down for at least 10 minutes. No problem. I wandered off, a little unsteadily toward the tea room. Then it was Margie’s turn.
And so the afternoon and evening unspooled themselves: the South-Western Bathhouse is a lot like a casino, windowless, almost clock-free, a warm, intimate cocoon with seemingly little relationship to the outside world. The clientele were mostly Russians, but with a decent minority of ordinary Torontonians like ourselves, starved for warmth and intrigued by the concept, rendered uncharacteristically chatty and unguarded by the context. The vibe is friendly, intimate, relaxed, communal: it’s not a family place exactly (we saw no kids), more like a place to escape your kids, but it’s also not a tiny bit seedy or cruise-y which is sometimes a criticism levelled at other Russian baths. At some point, after many cycles of sauna, cold water dip, hanging out drinking tea, watching a long documentary about penguins in Russian on TV, and just chatting aimlessly about whatever came to mind, we decided we were hungry. We ordered Georgian Chicken Tabaka, a bowl of Solianka soup, and a Baltika beer. The beer came first:
Followed by the soup:
This was a tangy, hearty soup…a meaty broth, filled with olives, pickles, chunks of sausage, sour cream and spiked with lemon. Solianka can be heavier than this, thicker with more ingredients, but for a banya it’s important that none of the dishes be too heavy. We’d been warned about eating too much, but nevertheless moved on to Chicken Tabaka:
Chicken Tabaka is fried Georgian chicken, in this case half a chicken marinated, spatchcocked, coated in a masala of spices including whole coriander seeds, and then shallow fried until dark golden and crispy. It was served with a couple of slices of fried apple, half a fried potato, and a light, joyous assortment of salad filled out the plate. There was a regular chopped tomato-and-feta lettuce type of affair, and a large spoonful of a Russian cooked salad simply called “vinegret”, made of beets, sliced peppers, peas, dill, cooked potato, and a variety of other things in a classic vinaigrette dressing.
It was a colourful and delicious offering: the chicken tender and well cooked, run through with flavour, and the unusual coriander crusting adding a spicy dimension to the whole thing. South-Western Bathhouse is a family enterprise, with dad running the front desk, mom cooking, and daughter running laundry and performing tour guide duty. The kitchen at the end of the tea room looks exactly like a small suburban kitchen, and the food takes time to come out because mom is cooking it on a regular electric four burner stove.
Back in the banya, we decided to try out out honey-salt masks. “Do it last, and try them in the hammam”, mom had suggested, “because you can just wash it off in there.” We fished the little plastic pots out of our robe pockets and spread the sticky, grainy contents on our faces: within less than two minutes, we were re-enacting the face melting scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark but even though the mask wasn’t on our skin for long, it did leave it pink and smooth. We dressed and headed back to the tea room for dessert, which was going to be this:
An extremely alluring walnut cake we had noticed earlier. Thank god, there was one piece left, but when we ordered it mom sadly informed us that it was reserved for another guest. “I only make one cake a day,” she said. “Maybe I should make more. Would you like to try some sour cherry perogies instead?” We unwillingly accepted this as a salve to our disappointment, but it turned out to be good advice:
The perogies are the only thing that isn’t made in house at South-Western Bathhouse: everything else, the sausage, the walnut cake, all the soups and stews and the kvas are made regularly if not daily from fresh ingredients. Whoever does make the perogies is pretty good, though: the dough is not too thick, and the filling was delightfully solid and densely packed with fruit. The perogies are served boiled, topped with a little melted butter, then a generous dollop of sweetened sour cream, and a drizzle of sour cherry syrup over top. We didn’t think we were hungry, but we devoured this good-sized portion in less than two minutes. Margie wisely ceded the last perogie to me. It might have been risky to do otherwise.
Mom suggested we come by tomorrow and pick up a piece of walnut cake (as we spoke, she was mixing up the batter) but neither of us thought we’d be back in Mississauga anytime soon. But perhaps we’ll be back sooner than we think: already the menu seems too full of missed opportunities (the guy next to us in the tea room had the sausage and kasha and the smell alone was satisfying on a very deep level). South-Western Bathhouse is a wonderful oasis, from the cold, from the general hostility of Toronto. My only fear is that it might be too hot not to cool down: the work, the care, the attention that goes into this place is tremendous, and hopefully sustainable.
South-Western Bathhouse Russian-Style Sauna & Tea Room, 2200 Dundas Street East (at the back)
$30.00 entry fee includes the right to wallow in delicious heat like a tropical walrus for up to 12 hours, robe, towels, slippers, and lots of great tea.
Main dishes, $12.00, soup and desserts $6.00 – total experience, about $65.00 per person including a variety of saunas and steam rooms, private locker, towels, robe and flip flops, an ample and tasty meal, tea, a little beer, honey-salt facial mask and expert massage/beating/exfoliation with fresh venik.