After a hot day on a Puerto Rican beach, how about a night of cool jazz in Old San Juan?
Carli’s Fine Bistro & Piano combines an intimate setting with a creative menu and serves up some fine music, beginning at 8 p.m. and going until Carli is finished.
Carli Muñoz plays piano most nights. He plays with a duo or trio on the weekends and has guest musicians in as well. We stopped by for our first visit when Carli was playing solo. A few jazz standards, stage musical favorites and one Beach Boy song, “God Only Knows.” That one was appropriate. He collaborated with the Beach Boys for a dozen years.
His restaurant is intimate, one of those tiny places with a dozen tables, room for eight or 10 around the L-shaped bar. One part 1960s paneled basement and three parts intimate New York club, Carli’s is warm and inviting and keeps you close to the music. We sat not 10 feet from the piano, close enough to watch his fingers fly over the ivories in a beautiful dance. A friend had flown in from the coast. L.A. singer-songwriter Marta Woodhull stepped up the piano to sing a couple of songs. Beautiful. The music really heats up when Carli’s playing with a drummer and bass. I hated it to end.
We hadn’t had enough when the evening was over so we make reservations to come back. This time we sat at the bar and had an opportunity to get to know the bartenders Faust0 and Christian. A master muddler, Fausto makes a fine mojito as he shares a joke, checks on another customer and has rum bottles flying through the air. It was a treat to share his agreeable company for an evening.
Carli’s offers a menu fusing Puerto Rican favorites with the flavors of the world. Add in a decent wine list and a lively bar and you know you’ll go home satisfied. For us, a shrimp tempura with mofongo (sweet and savory mashed plantains) and a plate of crisp empanadillas were memorable. Baltimoreans can be snobs about crab cakes but these Puerto Rican beauties were sweet and hot and delicious even if they were different. I highly recommend their ravioli and risotto, too.
It was a week of music for us: salsa, the Pablo Casals Music Festival, and on two evenings, Carli’s jazz. Heaven.
© Text and photos Mary K. Tilghman