I’m transfixed by one photo in a rotating slideshow on the website of the Russian spa Archimedes Banya. A young, lovestruck couple is submerged in a hot tub. The peach-skinned man hoists a stein of beer. And his paramour seems to be dunking a whole fish into the beer.
Your actual meal at the spa will not be served in the Jacuzzi (it’s for the best), but you will eat in a surreal, unsettling hideaway, not unlike the interplanetary cantina in “Star Wars.” It’s called, weirdly, Zteamers.
The absurdity of the photo is apt.
In a low-ceilinged space that feels brightly lit and dark all at once, swarthy Russians swill pitchers of beer, hooting at soccer matches and “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Everyone wears robes, and likely not much else.
You can order up dried fish jerky, fermented barley soda and a range of Eastern European rib-stickers.
There’s one $8 vitamin smoothie on the menu, but this isn’t your typical spa cafe. Abandon your wheatgrass dreams and belly up for some borscht.
The spa can be punishing, with extremes of hot and cold pushing your limits (I noticed one steam room hit 220 degrees). I would urge you to choose food that won’t make you faint or vomit.
If you want to get Russian chicken kasha (not to be confused with the Bengali dish of the same name), a stout entree of gravied chicken breast, mushrooms and onions over buckwheat groats, have at it. Just know the groat may give you bloat.
Or try the pelmeni, doughy little veal-filled tortellini. They’re quite tasty with lemon, dill and sour cream, but maybe not the best dish before a dive into the cold plunge.
And certainly the piroshky, with its thick fried bread and leaden beef innards, could be a choice you’ll regret.
If you ask me, go for a smoked salmon plate: simple, light and fresh. You get a fair helping of cured fish, artfully arranged on a rustic wood platter with rye bread, sour cream, lemon and dill.
Skip the can-fresh pickled veggies, instead sharing the meat and cheese plate with a friend. It’s a splay of well-selected charcuterie, also served with rye bread. The whole thing is like a Russian picnic, perfect for backpacking through the Caucasus Mountains (like I’m an expert).
The red caviar blini were surprisingly light, the crepes artfully enfolding sour cream and salty bursts of ocean. Corn and scrambled egg bits dotted the plate.
Zteamers (I feel funny every time I write that word) also does some nice, if meaty, soups. Hot borscht was chunky and laden with mixed veggies and strips of beef. The solyanka, a Ukrainian soup with beef, cabbage and green olives, had a refreshing tartness I’ve never encountered in soup.
Archimedes Banya is not for the delicate spa flower, accustomed to mellow world-beat music and serenity. It’s rough and tumble, a place where old men get smacked with tree branches and where spa fashion consists of pointy wool hats and no pants.
Zteamers, a cafe for spa goers only, was the perfect complement to the kookiness; just make sure to learn from my mistakes. Order modestly, stick with the light fare and certainly go easy on the beer.
This spa was built for those with a sturdy constitution. No offense, dear readers, but you’re looking a bit soft.
Zteamers (inside Archimedes Banya)
- Location: 748 Innes Ave. ?(at Earl Street ), S.F.
- Contact: (415) 206-9000, ?www.banyasf.com
- Hours: Noon to 11 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 10 a.m. to ?11 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays
- Price range: $4 to $14
- Recommended dishes: Smoked salmon plate ($10), meat plate ($10), red caviar blini ($12), borscht ($4, $7), solyanka ($4, $7)
- Credit cards: All major
- Reservations: Not accepted