Founded by Andrei Fomin, this little haven is tucked away in a new development block on Micawber Street. Already in its first successful year, the banya has attained an exclusive clientele and two thick testimonial books filled with customer comments, some of them describing the experience as "better than sex". I admit, I was daunted when I read that little note and then to find myself in a bikini sporting a dome-shaped felt hat (a traditional garment to protect the head from heat) starring at two burly men preparing the parenie venik massage.
The banya has its roots with the Ancient Romans bathhouses, a place of commune and socializing. Many Russian villages would have a bathhouse where men, women and children gather to wash and beat one another with veniks (bundles of dried birch, oak and eucalyptus leaves soaked in water). It was regarded as a place of healing and referred to as the "people's first doctor", vodka the second and raw garlic the third.
In a matter of swishes and swooshes, I am on a journey of rebirth. Banschik's (doctors) collect hot vapour spurting from the central stove and envelop your body in a cloud of steam, followed by intermittent veils of cooling air. Immediately after, cold water is poured all over your body before you are sent to plunge into a pool of 10°C ice cold water.
"Food plays an integral part to this whole experience", Fomin tells me as we sip freshly pressed cranberry juice. I am relieved to be eating as I am beginning to feel ravenous and weak. The minute you step into the sauna you are sweating, losing water, potassium and salts, so it is important to replenish with pints of kvas and zakuski (cold tapas).
Four hours later, I leave, my mind all hazy, the body slowly turning into lead, relenting to the inevitable slumber that awaits me this evening.
Here are my top picks:
Fresh Thyme steeped in boiling water served with buckwheat honey sourced from Ukraine. A lovely aromatic and replenishing drink. Other fresh herbal teas on offer are kaporski (fireweed), mint and black tea.
Ukranian salo [Cало] 100g, £2
Gorgeous slithers of cloudy white fat seasoned with salt and black pepper. Salo is cured, served raw and melts in the mouth. It can be eaten on its own or on a piece of brown bread with horseradish.
Thin, squared slices of beef tongue that has been boiled in bouillon with vegetables and spices. It is served cold and lovely eaten with a dollop of horseradish.
Salted* cabbage [капуста] 300g,£3
Similar to sauerkraut, the Russian salted cabbage taste less fermented and sharp compared to the German variation. Its crunchy and soured flavour makes it a nice addition with the smoked tongue and salo.
The herring is traditionally made in large wooden barrels using the brining process, which involves a combination of salt, sugar and spices. It is commonly served with raw, sliced onions and vodka, which counteracts the oiliness and strong fish flavor.
Salted* and marinated tomatoes - off menu
The tomatoes are sourced from Italy and undergo the salting process. The juicy flavours burst in your mouth and you instantly feel replenished of nutrients.
Also known as the "poor man's lobster" a plate of crayfish will feed two people happily. It's worth all the cracking, tearing and poking to get to the sweet meat. Don't forget the best part - the slithers of tender meat buried in the claws and the brown goodness from the head.
Homemade Kvas 1 litre, £2.50
A natural fermented beverage made from dried black or rye bread called suhari. It carries a golden colour and has a high content of vitamin B. Fruit, such as raisins are to give it fizz. With an alcoholic content of less than 1%, it carries with it a distinct and tangy taste.
* Anything salted is to be differentiated with the pickling process. Table salt, herbs, carrots, cranberry and young leaves of blackcurrant are used. Historically, during the harsh winter climates, this was a way for people to get a source of vitamin C.
17 Micawber Street
020 7253 6723Suggest a correction