Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Datz Good

Datz is evolving into something wonderful, but I can't put my finger on its ultimate goal.  When it grows up, does it want to be a tony sandwich shop, a cafe and bakery, a neighborhood bar, a casual foodie hangout or a fine-dining destination?

This two-story South Tampa eatery seems to encapsulate all of the above.  Urbanspoon currently lists it among the top five fine-dining destinations in Tampa.  What?  Last time I was there, it was a deli. 

So how did this transformation come about?  One Food and Loathing theory is that the culinary chops behind Datz outgrew the sandwich menu, leading this restaurant on a journey of self-discovery and continued thematic experimentation, one in which its loyal patrons are the beneficiaries.  Or, a more likely scenario, the owners rode the wave of the recession trying to get people in the door by pulling rabbits out of their hats. 

Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, Datz now dubs itself a gastropub and offers an ongoing rotation of craft beers, cooking classes, and wine and cheese tastings.

An area that formerly featured an enclosed glass deli case and displayed potato salad and other cold take-home items, has been converted into a liquor bar.  A spot near the front door is now an interactive food bar that features cooking demonstrations.  The bakery is still in place downstairs, along with some tables and a display of gourmet market fare, and upstairs the scene is familiar with a full liquor bar and two dining areas.  The busy atmosphere is welcoming, warmed by exposed red-brick walls. 

The lunch menu - I have never dined here for breakfast or dinner - focuses on sandwiches, really big (and expensive) sandwiches composed of high-quality ingredients and a superior assortment of fresh breads.  The variety is mind-boggling, a selection that makes you throw up your hands and ask the waiter to tell you his favorite just so you can narrow down the choices.  If you are bashful about opening your mouth as wide as it can go to stuff your face, then you might opt for a salad.  But I had a salad a couple of weeks ago and it couldn't hold a candle to the big ol' honkin' sandwiches.

My partner in culinary crime this day was my friend and neighbor, Blame It on Rio. When Rio and I pulled up to the building on S. MacDill Ave., we were waved away from the restaurant's full parking lot, prompting us to park on a side street, which was also filling up fast.  Parking is a pain at Datz, but even more so this day because the place was conducting a culinary class and had a Gasparilla-related craft event in full swing out front.  Bustling!

Despite all the activity, we immediately were taken to an upstairs table, where a waiter appeared promptly to take drink orders.  He suggested a specialty iced tea, which we pounced on.

I decided to stay on the healthful side of things and get a spinach salad.  Wait a minute.  Do bacon dressing and big chunks of crispy applewood smoked bacon and blue cheese crumbles qualify as healthful?   That's the way I like my salads - full of BACON and CHEESE.   It's too bad that's where the excitement ended.  The dish was rather ordinary otherwise, without any of the wow factors characteristic of the sandwiches.  The bacon dressing, barely lukewarm, was unpleasantly gooey.  The piece of bread atop the greens was inedible, neither crispy like a crouton, nor soft and chewy like a slice of fresh baguette.   I was surprised by its semi-soft, semi-hard texture, akin to stale toast.  The salad would also have benefited from some crunchy red onion. 

Rio had the right idea.  Get a sandwich. 

The Slab It, Grab It with house chips.  Why did I order a salad?

She ordered what I would call a glorified BLT with guacamole, the colorful contents cradled between slices of grilled country bread.  There was that awesome bacon again, front and center in this sandwich like the prize-winning pig at the county fair.  Although I didn't taste it, I could tell from the drips running down Rio's hand that the "Slab It, Grab It" was one juicy offering.   She only managed to eat half, as we mused how nice it would be if they opened a Datz in our neck of the hoods. 

Sandwiches at Datz are accompanied by sweet-and-salty homemade potato chips.  The first time I had these, Sister Foodie was with me and we thought someone in the kitchen confused the sugar and salt shakers.  They were exceedingly sweet.  On subsequent visits, however, the seasonings on these crispy snacks were well balanced.  A drizzle of blue cheese sauce graces the top of the chips because everything tastes better with blue cheese sauce.  It's a fact.

No visit to Datz would be complete without a stop at the bakery counter.  We got a chocolate-laden devil's food treat for Rio's daughter and a gigantic piece of red velvet cake for Son of Hubmeister.  The cake had the crazy red-food-coloring blaze of the traditional Southern recipe and a thick coating of cream cheese frosting.  It was rich but good.

Datz not cheap.  Sandwiches and salads are in the $10-plus range.  The piece of cake was $6.

So is the metamorphosis complete?  Probably not.  This place knows how to adapt to trends and meet the demands of an ever-changing marketplace.  Lucky for us. 

Verdict:   Repeat customer.

Restaurant Info:
2616 S. MacDill Avenue
Tampa 33629
(813) 831-7000

Datz on Urbanspoon

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