Yesterday my friend Irena and I took the Q train to the Church stop in Brooklyn. We walked past many a bodega and a few grocery stores, and very little else. But we weren’t here for lotto tickets or discounted ground beef. We were on a way to Banya.
We met our friend Vera in front of Banya and readied ourselves for what could perhaps lay behind this Russian bath house door. We walked inside and waited to be helped. The woman sitting in the dark dining room glanced up at us and returned to her paperwork. We waited another minute and wondered if she’d come and help. She didn’t. So we rang the bell atop the counter, and then she put her work down and came to help us.
Lesson 1: Follow the rules of the bath house. When the sign says “Ring for help”…you best be ringing for help.
Vera and Irena had bought Amazon coupons to this particular bath house, as did I. But I bought from Groupon. Another owner came over and practically yelled at me. “When you buy Groupon, you must read details!! Coupon only good during week. Not weekend!!” Flecks of spit flew as he reprimanded me for not reading the fine print. But he ended up giving me the discounted rate anyway.
Lesson 2: Read the fine print.
We spent the next few hours in the bath house jumping from hot dry sauna to cold pool, to hot wet sauna to jacuzzi, back to cold pool. Russian music played in the background while Russian music videos were playing up over head. This bath house shared a serious dose of Russian culture, whether you wanted it or not.
We didn’t partake in the fare, but they had traditional kvos– a dark lager-like drink, yeasty and non-alcoholic, meant to refresh after all the sweating that’s being done.
After watching everyone munch and drink, we took our tomato-red bodies upstairs and changed. We were ready for food too.
We did a bit of research and found a restaurant nearby called Old Baku. We headed off through parts of Brooklyn previously unexplored, enjoying a headily sunny day, still crisp with a winter’s chill that’s having a hard time letting go.
We arrived at the restaurant, thoroughly hungry. The rating on the door was a blatant C, but the reviews were so good, we decided to give it a go.
We were led past booths that had heavy brown velvet drapes, ready to be drawn for a private dining experience. Instead, we headed out back, through a courtyard, into a room that felt like an old neighborhood joint straight out of Baku (the capital of Azerbaijan).
Groups of tables of men (no women were in this restaurant) were drinking bottles of vodka, smoking cigarettes and playing backgammon. The music was folksy and the smell of charred vegetables permeated the air. We were immediately in love with the atmosphere. It was like we had stepped out of Brooklyn and into a slice of Azerbaijani life.
We ordered too many things: grilled eggplant and tomato salad, cold tongue with mustard and horseradish, pickled trout with potatoes, and crusty bread, fresh off the grill. A plate of different cold salads was compliments of the house.
We then ordered lamb fries, or lamb testicles. Our waiter seemed shocked and delighted by our choice and instead offered the dish of lamb fries, liver, charred fat, and roasted potatoes. My eyes grew big and I said yes.
A platter of sizzling meat bits, sitting over warmly glowing coals, was placed at our table.
Truthfully, the dish was delicious. But the best part of the dish were the lamb fries, and I wished we had just gotten a plate of them instead. Creamy and delicate, you would never guess lamb testicles could taste so good! But they do, because Old Baku knows how to cook them well.
We then ordered more, and our waiter seemed distressed. How could three girl eat so much? But we insisted we wanted more, and he reluctantly took our order.
We ordered ground lamb shish kebab (lula), and cubes of marinated beef shish kebab. Our grilled meets were delivered with fries, rice, and an herb-y tomato dipping sauce. We were so full, but the grilled meats were the most flavorful bits on the table. We ate it all, licking our fingers of the rich marinade and swiping a few fries through the sauce.
Throughout the meal, several of the men came over to bring us fresh pots of tea, bowls of candies, crisp watermelon and strawberries, and platters of grapes. We were all loving the warmth and hospitality that was being shown, and Vera mentioned that in the Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan), hospitality is first and foremost. The servers were trying to show us a wonderful time, and kept insisting we come back for the live music on the weekends. And after many pots of tea, and lots of fresh fruit, we were easily convinced this is a restaurant worth returning to.
Our meal concluded with little bowls of sweetly stewed fruits. White cherries from Baku and little red fruits that resembled large goji berries, but with pits. Utterly cloying, yet delicious (even better had we had a bowl of yogurt to eat them with).
Lesson 3 (final lesson): Do as we did and eat at Old Baku.
We left the restaurant feeling as if we had spent a day traveling. The Russian baths and Azerbaijani food reconfirmed why New York is so wonderful. Our day in Brooklyn gave us the chance to experience old Baku hospitality, cuisine and music. I’m still warm inside, and it’s not from the hot dry sauna.
Brooklyn Bath House:
The restaurant Old Baku: