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Sort-of Secret: South-Western Bathhouse and Tea Room, an authentic Russian sauna and restaurant in Mississauga

By Liza Agrba| Photography by Daniel Neuhaus
Sort-of Secret: South-Western Bathhouse and Tea Room, an authentic Russian sauna and restaurant in Mississauga

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The sort-of secret: South-Western Bathhouse and Tea Room, a Russian banya (sauna) and restaurant in Mississauga

You may have heard of it if: You’ve been fortunate enough to have an Eastern European friend or family member introduce you to the tradition

But you probably haven’t tried it because: It’s tucked around the side of a plaza, with only a red canopy over the door to signal its existence

Sort-of Secret: South-Western Bathhouse and Tea Room, an authentic Russian sauna and restaurant in Mississauga

A decade after immigrating from southern Russia to Toronto, Valentina and Victor Tourianski were invited to a friend’s makeshift backyard banya. “We had fun, but it wasn’t built properly—it was just a metal stove in a shed,” says Valentina. “Later that night, Victor said, ‘I can build a better banya.’”

He did, and it quickly became the place to be for family and friends. The conviviality reminded them of home. Saunas are, beyond all their reputed health benefits, about community building; they’re the social glue of Russian culture.

Soon afterward, Victor, a construction worker, was injured on the job. In search of a new income source, the couple started thinking about getting into the banya business for real. Finding a location wasn’t easy—there’s a long-standing stigma around bathhouses—but they managed to secure a space and opened the South-Western Bathhouse and Tea Room in 2012, a slice of rural Russia just west of the 427.

Sort-of Secret: South-Western Bathhouse and Tea Room, an authentic Russian sauna and restaurant in Mississauga

“Our goal was to introduce this beautiful tradition to Canadians,” says Valentina. And, 10 years later, the vast majority of their clients are non-­Russian. That said, it’s a complicated time to run a business that revolves around Russian culture. The Tourianskis are staunchly opposed to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but they maintain a strong connection to their country. Fortunately, their customers have been understanding. “What’s happening in Ukraine is absolutely terrible,” says Valentina. “But that doesn’t mean I stop being Russian. This is my culture.”

The spa services are only half of the experience here. In the Tudor-style dining room—decorated with vintage Soviet posters and samovars—red-faced guests in white terry cloth robes and conical felt hats (to protect from overheating) chat over cups of complimentary tea and tuck into post-steam sustenance.

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Victor, a passionate cook who used to own a sausage business back home, works alongside Ukrainian chef Mykhailo Voitovych. Together, they serve a menu of dishes from Russia and across the former Soviet Union.

Sort-of Secret: South-Western Bathhouse and Tea Room, an authentic Russian sauna and restaurant in Mississauga

There’s the transcendent chakhokhbili, a Georgian chicken-and-potato stew. The borscht is another hit: beef stock, simmered for at least six hours, is the key, according to Valentina, whose specialty is the beet-based soup. Also on the menu is the colourfully named Herring Under a Fur Coat salad—the “coat” consists of mayonnaise, onion, potatoes, carrots, eggs and beets. The fish dish is a classic Russian recipe that’s traditionally served during the holidays, especially on New Year’s Eve.

Salo—razor-thin slices of frozen pork fatback served with squares of nutty rye bread—is a popular post-steam snack that goes best with a frosty pint of Czech lager. For something stronger, there’s Georgian wine, specialty shots—including a bold blend of vodka, beet juice and Victor’s horseradish preserve—and signature cocktails. The Moscow Martini, the star of the cocktail list, comes spiked with punchy pickle brine, widely considered a hangover cure in Russia. Non-alcoholic beverages include tea and kompot, a juice made with sour cherries and peaches.

Valentina and Victor recently opened a second, larger location in Richmond Hill that features a Turkish hammam room. At either spa, the correct order is sauna first, then food and finally a vodka shot with a dill pickle chaser that provides a bracing warm-up before heading back into the winter air.

Sort-of Secret: South-Western Bathhouse and Tea Room, an authentic Russian sauna and restaurant in Mississauga
After a stint in the 80-degree wood-fired banya, guests can cool off by soaking themselves with a barrel of icy water

 

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Sort-of Secret: South-Western Bathhouse and Tea Room, an authentic Russian sauna and restaurant in Mississauga
A venik massage involves being repeatedly thwacked with a bundle of oak leaves (it feels better than it sounds)

 

Sort-of Secret: South-Western Bathhouse and Tea Room, an authentic Russian sauna and restaurant in Mississauga
The correct way to do ice-cold vodka shots: toast with a “za zdorovie!” (“for your health” in Russian), take a big breath, down the booze in one fell swoop, exhale slowly and then eat the dill pickle

 

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