When the words “food” and “Nottingham” come up in the same sentence, concerns spring up over the fact the good folk of the city call barm cakes “cobs”. So, eating out in the UNESCO City of Literature always causes a sense of trepidation as the menu might throw some linguistic curveballs with literary licence.
Finding myself in Nottingham one evening with a growing sense of hunger, I followed a recommendation to head to The Hand and Heart on Derby Road, which is a short walk from the city centre.
Aside from the choice of names the city’s residents give their food, Nottingham is where HP brown sauce comes from, so it can’t all be bad. Can it?
From the street, the inconspicuous-looking Hand and Heart promises “cave dining”. But did that mean I’d be clubbing bison before spit-roasting them in a dank hovel?
Thankfully not. They have a chef to do all that for you.
I joke. The rear of the pub is actually built into a cave. But you can see why I’d be worried.
One thing I’d heard said is that the pub is one of the oldest in the UK. I’m not sure it’s even close. It’s probably a couple of hundred years old, its facade looks even younger than that.
In fact, it doesn’t look like a historic relic like fellow Nottingham ‘cave pub’, ‘Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem’ — which is clearly so old it has the word ‘ye’ in its name. Ye Olde Trip was once a stop-off for Richard the Lionheart’s men on their way to wreak carnage in the Holy Lands.
But it’s said that Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem can be a bit of a tourist trap— and we wanted to hang with merry Nott’s locals, not crusade chasers. For this reason, The Hand and Heart was definitely the right way to go.
Luckily, we got to experience the cave dining as advertised. An archway from the recently refurbished Victorian bar area led to the long sandstone cave area toward the rear, where we’d find our table.
The general vibe of the Hand and Heart was that it was an honest boozer with a tale to tell, no doubt historically frequented by workers from the local Raliegh bike factory who’d wheel in half-cut and bawdy. If the walls could talk…
Tonight though, there was less beer-soaked hubbub and more civilised dining.
The low ceilings, mood lighting, and comfy olde-worlde furniture throughout the cave area created a cosy antithesis to the throng of the outside world, almost rewinding to a simpler time where the stresses of the digital age hadn’t even been imagined.
I soaked in the tranquil ambience. Was this what eating out was like for our cave-dwelling neanderthal ancestors?
The first thing on the agenda was naturally to order drinks. Beer is something that The Hand and Heart evidently try to do well. There are several lesser-known real ale choices alongside more famous offerings from Bass and Dancing Duck.
The drinks were served quickly, and the staff member was friendly. It was clear knew how to look after their beer. What more could I want?
Being in the Midlands, a Dancing Duck was the order of the day for me. I got a slight citrus tang. It was a pleasant enough beer that went down easily. So easily, in fact, that a second pint was needed just after our mains arrived.
Time to see if the food was equally on spec.
From the initial quick scan of the menu, everything looked promising. Not just a tagged-on half-thought-out vegetarian or vegan option, there were a few solid choices for both mains and starters!
For a starter, I chose the cauliflower soup. This arrived reasonably quickly and came with warm homemade bread. The soup was tasty, but the bread was amazing. I’d happily have had more, even if I’d have to call it a ‘cob’ while ordering.
There was an interesting-sounding squash and chili pate elsewhere on the starter list, which my friend ordered. Their three-word review: Mind blowingly tasty.
Next up was the main. I’d gone for a ‘fake’ and ale pie. The rustic-looking pie arrived piping hot and was accompanied by chips and peas. Oddly, everything arrived in its own container. I’m not sure if it’s an effort at portion control, an attempt to appease people who hate different food touching each other or just a way to look fancy.
Regardless, I subtly slid everything out onto the plate because navigating small containers can get fiddly, and I prefer to concentrate on the conversation rather than my cutlery techniques.
But, “how did it taste?” I hear you cry.
Well, I was pretty impressed. If I didn’t know any better, and someone had put that down in front of me, I’d assume the pie was filled with beef. Not sure genuinely how close the taste and texture actually are to the real deal, but in one of those blind Pepsi-Coke taste tests, this pie would definitely food quite a few people.
It tastes great. The homemade pastry was crisp, the chips fresh. All in all, a good effort.
Of course, I wasn’t eating alone. Not to my taste, but my sidekick in sustenance clearly loved their seabass.
When the starter and main are this good, it’s rude not to check out the dessert menu. A few minutes later, a member of the team came to clear our plates and let us know what was on offer.
A few good options jumped out. There was a cheesecake, crumble, and sticky toffee pudding. I went in for the latter, and I wasn’t disappointed. My dining companion had the crumble with ice cream. The pudding must have been good, we were both quiet for several minutes while we polished our bowls clean.
The pub is owned by Dawn Suchoruczk, who has held the helm since restoring it in 2007. The Hand and Heart also had further renovations during the pandemic, including improved toilets and bar areas.
She’s created a wonderful atmosphere that transports you to another time and place, far from the bustle of 21st-century Nottingham. With a great range of drinks, an appetising menu cooked by a chef who clearly cares, and every member of staff on when we visited gave exceptional service, The Hand and Heart is one to visit again.