There's been a hell of a lot of buzz about Datz Deli. When this new restaurant opened the week before Super Bowl, it was flooded with people looking for stacked meat between two slices of bread in the style of Katz's or Zabar's. What they found was enormous lines and an overwhelmed staff; they also found that Datz was more than, and less of, a deli than they expected.
By last week, Datz had worked out the kinks in its ebb and flow, rendering early complaints moot now that the staff has had a chance to gel (although the limited parking will always be a bitch). But the other problems, and benefits, of this "deli" are still a source of delight and frustration.
Let's start with the sandwiches because, for most folks, the word deli is going to form their preconceived notion of the place. Datz falls prey to that modern restaurant foible in which branding and marketing takes priority over convenience and tradition. Almost all the sandwiches on the list are specialty creations with cutesy names that veer far from standard deli fare.
Order a "Suzie Schmoozie" or a "Los Alamos Meltdown" and you'll receive a competent sandwich constructed out of some damn fine ingredients sourced by Datz owners Roger and Suzanne Perry from artisanal producers around the country — on bread largely baked in-house. Order a turkey on rye with mustard and mayo and you'll receive strained glances as the server tries to figure out how to put the order into the kitchen and what to charge you.
Prices are also a bit high, if not egregious, with most sandwiches pegged over the $10 mark. And, with few exceptions, the mile-high stack of meat that's the hallmark of Datz's ancestors in New York just isn't there.
OK, let's set aside the sandwiches. The key to enjoying the Datz Deli experience — and it is immensely enjoyable — is to ignore that the place is supposed to be a deli. Walk in the front door and you're confronted with racks of well-chosen wine and coolers full of craft brews and imports. Veer to the left and you'll pass refrigerated cases jammed with fresh desserts, from mini-tarts to red velvet cakes.
There're fresh baked goods, from traditional boule to house-made bagels, directly across from one of the best cheese selections in South Tampa. The counters are lined with cured ham from Spain and Italy, the piggy legs displayed and cut right before your eyes. And don't forget the salumi case.
But do not be fooled into thinking of Datz as a glorified market. The building on south MacDill is a two-story modern marvel, with a dining room and bar squeezed into the upstairs loft. Everything you see in the market — all those glorious meats, cheeses and wines — is available at the tables. Take a gander at those lists and you'll forget you ever came in for a stack of corned beef on rye.
The wine list is phenomenal, 100-plus items long, and constructed almost entirely out of brilliant bottles you won't find on most lists. Better yet, the prices are the same whether you crack a bottle open at the table or take it to go. An entire wine list that's already one of the best in Tampa, priced at retail. That means Caymus Conundrum clocks in at $21.99, Ferrari-Carano Fume Blanc at $14.99 and Zind-Humbrecht Gewurztraminer at $24.99. This "deli" may have the best wine program in the Bay area.
The beer list is almost as exciting, and both brew and vino are available in a dozen flights constructed by Datz's in-house sommelier Patty Kuhl, a 15-year veteran of the Disney beverage management program. Don't want to pair that fabulous but inexpensive bottle of Alsace Gewwurz with chicken salad? No problem. Datz also has a half-dozen cheese and half-dozen charcuterie plates that highlight the best of what they have to offer in the market, with wine pairings to match. Does that sound like a "deli?"
Even with the cheese and meat platters, I can't help wishing for a few hot plates during the evening hours that don't consist of latkes or kugel. Vivia Grier, formerly of the defunct Vivia's Kitchen, is Datz's chef, and she has plenty of talent to spare after whipping up chicken soup and potato salad. Maybe if the deli cut her loose, just a little, there might be more food to match Datz's innovative beverage program. The Perrys are restaurant newbies, but considering the success they've already had I wouldn't put it past them to make some changes in the near future.
As Datz exists now, though, beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. Head to the place for lox and a schmear on a Bialy, or for a stack of pastrami with provolone on pumpernickel, and you'll likely find nits to pick. Go for a great glass of wine, some Iberico ham and fontina Val D'Aosta and you'll likely name Datz your favorite place to grab a quaff of wine and quick nosh in Tampa.
That's how I'm choosing to look at it.