Helsinki is a dream destination for architects and design buffs – you only have to visit this Nordic city’s churches to appreciate the Finnish attention to detail and creative use of space. And many tourists visit specifically to gather Moomin memorabilia and Marimekko accessories, to pay homage to designer Alvar Aalto’s legacy or to shop in the city’s dedicated design district.
Located majestically alongside the design district’s network of design shops, warehouses and museums Hotel Lilla Roberts is set in an early 20th century building that has previously seen service as a power plant and police station. Opened last summer after a revamp by Finnish designer Jaakko Puro, the hotel is bold and glamorous from its glossy front façade right through to the rest of the building.
The sharp design continues in the hotel’s lobby, with splashes of plum, burnt orange, gold and wood lifting the otherwise monochrome palate. Gleaming black and white flooring leads to a glass-fronted wooden reception desk dominated by a striking, life-size black horse lamp from Sweden.
Wooden shelves and stylish side tables groan with black and white zigzag vases, oversized chess pieces in glass bell jars and design books that you can casually flick through on one of the squishy burnt orange sofas.
Despite the elegance the hotel embraces a general feeling of “hygge”, that Danish word used to encompass all of life’s simple pleasures. A wooden fireplace crackles beside a wall of birch logs and leather chairs are perfectly placed to watch hip passersby.
Winter days in Finland are short and seriously cold, so bedrooms come with cosy fur blankets, plush rugs on parquet flooring and velvet armchairs in deep plums, mustard yellows and teals. Funky touches such as elephant lamps, zebra print throws and monochrome vases tie in with the glamorous feel and bathrooms are stocked with Neal’s Yard toiletries. Splashing a bit more cash will bag you a “style” room with a sofa, or the largest “lux” rooms and suites, which come with Nespresso machines, high ceilings and baths.
The hotel bar, Bar Lilla E, is a destination in itself for those in the know on Helsinki’s hip cocktail route. The dramatically spot-lit wooden bar (it just happens to sit next to a crackling fire) makes a stylish backdrop to a menu of Nordic-inspired cocktails – Midsummer’s Eve recreates the scent of Scandinavian summer with spring birch-infused Tanqueray gin and St Germain elderflower liqueur; a heavy glass tumbler is filled with flowers and birch branches are set alight to infuse the cocktail and its immediate surroundings with a smoky aroma. The strawberry cake cocktail takes a classic Finnish summer treat and turns it on its head; wild Finnish strawberries are whizzed up with lemon balm, skyr and Finlandia vodka to create a sweet, creamy drink. Each cocktail comes with a little extra, be that a tiny cheese triangle and small cup of black coffee on the side, a little juniper salmon smorrebrod or a tiny bed of grass to enhance the freshly mown smell.
If you’re after something simpler try a Napue gin distilled to the north of Helsinki in Kyro distillery with Finnish botanicals of meadowsweet, sea buckthorn, cranberries and birch leaves.
Hotel Lilla Roberts takes its food seriously, serving it in an adjoining restaurant, Krog Roba, with another large dose of hygge. The hotel’s signature style flows through into this dramatically curved space with its floor-to-ceiling windows, long curved bar and pattern-tiled flooring. The furniture is mismatched – burnt orange and wood chairs, upright dark wood seats and a set of plush teal velvet chairs all sit around a large table lit from above by a collection of black spotlights.
Krog Roba’s attention to detail is as impeccable when it comes to food. Dishes are dressed with flowers from the hotel’s inner courtyard allotment and drinks are infused with dill flowers. Classic Finnish ingredients such as lemon verbena, honey and blueberries are combined with flavours from neighbouring Nordic countries (skyr from Iceland, Smorrebrods from Denmark). We made the most of this emphasis on local produce with a vegetarian dish of organic egg with summer vegetables – a plate of baby carrots, fried potatoes, pretty pink radish, large intensely green peas and fine spring onions that was topped with nasturtium leaves. Salmon was glazed with a torch and served on a colourful bed of seasonal vegetables (radish, greens, potatoes) with bursts of rainbow trout roe and a light dill gravy.
Desserts are delicate, pretty and thoughtful – think golden caramelised almond tosca cake with a refreshing scoop of apple ice cream, classic Finnish blueberry pie, and honey and oat pastry with rhubarb set in a goat’s milk yogurt with nasturtium petals. Krog Roba’s signature dessert combines chocolate cake, milk chocolate ganache, Skyr ice cream, garden blueberries, spruce shots and a fine almond crumble (a kind of Finnish take on Eton mess).
Krog Roba also does excellent Finnish-style barbecuing – always at one with nature, the Finns know how to tend to and nurture their fires to infuse Finnish entrecote and grilled meats with a warming, birchy woodiness. The Thursday night grills are a real treat, featuring juicy double burgers on squishy glazed buns.
Served at Krog Roba, the breakfast and brunch buffet lives up to the restaurant’s a la carte menu. The usual suspects are there – jars of cereals, baskets of pastries and homemade country bread, and a made-to-order eggs menu. Finnish flavours infiltrate the buffet too, however, with plates of juniper-cured salmon and marinated herring and bowls of tiny garden blueberries and skyr, along with homemade rhubarb pie, a macaron tower and tiers of homemade biscuits thickly coated in chocolate.
Where there is sometimes champagne on offer, Krog Roba serves sparkling honey mead, orange juice sits alongside lemon balm cordial and pots of freshly filtered coffee give guests their first caffeine fix of the day (the Finns, like most Nordic nations, are obsessed with coffee).
At brunch, don’t miss the smorrebrods (open sandwiches) with juniper-smoked duck leg and delicate pickled vegetables and a side helping of potato salad seasoned with mustard.
Rates start at £150 per night per double, including buffet breakfast (lillaroberts.com).
Written by Alex Crossley, September 2016
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