Julie Ring's Heart and Soul serves up big helpings of ambiance, but the food at Cafe Mars is a world unto itself

Julie's supper club has grown up. Not Julie's Supper Club. That SoMa hotspot is still doing a funky '50s retro thing, serving up giant martinis and “fun food” to adoring crowds of yup-and-comers.

But former owner Julie Ring sold out to her partner, Dave Darwish, and has taken

her show uptown to Polk and Clay, where her new Heart and Soul is dishing out nostalgia of a different sort. The feeling is now more '40s sophisticated supper club, heavy on the drama: high ceilings, lots of black lacquer, red-carpeted stairs and a tinkler at the elevated baby grand doing jazz standards. It's even got a coat room, the true sign of upscale.

And the crowd that's just beginning to trickle in at this month-old restaurant looks a little older, a little heavier in the wallet region, more likely to order a vintage cabernet (or one of 17 bourbons featured prominently on the menu) than slug back some brewskis.

The best seat in the house is upstairs, right above the entrance, where you can keep your eye on the whole scene. And once you're seated, service is prompt and pleasant — if not terribly knowledgeable. Our waitress knew little about wine, and she didn't know where the bread was made (unforgivable in San Francisco).

The menu is divided into 13 “fancy snacks” and five “fancy entrŽes.” This kind of menu makes me nervous, like the faddish “small plate” thing, because I'm never sure what to do. What distinguishes the $10 “fancy snack” bistro steak with mixed greens, roasted potatoes and artichokes from the $14.50 “fancy entrŽe,” grilled whitefish bruschetta on an eggplant and basil purŽe?

Price, you say? Nope, because two of the entrŽes — linguine with spicy lemon, arugula and ricotta salata, and posole with fried jalape–os and lemons — are also $10. Does the fact that there are greens make the steak a snack rather than an entrŽe? And what makes them all fancy, anyway?

Our waitress did know enough to steer us to the steamed mussels in white wine with ancho barbecue sauce, sourdough toast and aioli ($10, a snack). Though I expected a bit more zing from the ancho barbecue sauce, the mussels were perfectly cooked and the broth made for excellent dipping.

Spinach, feta and pecans baked in filo on a watercress bleu cheese salad ($6, snack) didn't really come together, the two cheeses competing, the spinach lacking definitive seasoning.

As for the entrees, the aforementioned grilled whitefish bruschetta proved someone in the kitchen knows how to cook fish; the eggplant puree was a perfect foil. The posole, though delicious, was mild — a curiosity since its billing as “a Latino pork stew” led us to expect a sure hand with the chiles.

The bread pudding cake with whipped cream bourbon sauce would have been better warm; the chocolate mousse cake was not one of the better I've sampled of that seemingly ubiquitous dessert — dry, and, no kidding, not sweet enough.

“This kind of place, where they're selling lots of ambiance, doesn't really have to have great food,” my dining pal, a restaurateur herself, noted. “As long as it's decent, I'm happy, especially with the most expensive entree at $15.”

Well, maybe. But those darn snacks add up: With two snacks, two entrees and two desserts, excluding wine, we spent about $60, including tax and tip. That's a lot for okay.

As for Julie Ring, it makes me wonder what's next. If she keeps going back a decade and further north, what's next? A '30s Deco diner in Marin? A '20s speakeasy in Petaluma?

In other Julie's Supper Club-related news, former bar manager John Caine has opened up his Cafe Mars and it's really …

“What, whaddid you say?”
“I said Cafe Mars is a great place for …”
“I can't hear you!”

Cafe Mars is really loud. This is not the place to come for an intimate conversation, but if you want to have a drink or two (more than 10 beers on tap) and some of the best bar food in town, head for Mars.

The food offerings at this space-age eatery are called “Mezzas from Mars.” (This tendency to put an original label on food categories is fast becoming annoying.) “Oh,” said Richard, looking at the menu, “I guess they mean tapas.” Whatever happened to appetizers and hors d'oeuvres?

I advise proceeding immediately to the rocket shrimps ($7.25), tiny sweet shrimp in a fiery habanero chile sauce served with warm tortillas. Fearless fish soup, laced with Pernod, was fresh-tasting and delicious, loaded with mussels, shrimp, tuna and salmon. Angel's wings (chicken, $5.95) and a ribs special with purple cabbage ($7.95) were both moist and yummy.

The only disappointments were the crab cakes, which were of the crab-flavored-binding rather than big-chunks-of-crab variety, and an anchovy-less Caesar tasting strongly of Worcestershire. Rounding out the menu are Anchor-steamed mussels ($7.75), potstickers ($6.50), house-cured salmon in Patron tequila ($3.25) and (I love the idea) mini Niman Schell burgers ($3.25).

John Caine's personality (gregarious is putting it mildly) has already drawn a following, and regulars from the Public Defender's Office and Jewelry Mart round out the ranks. With Claus (formerly of Claus House in the De Luxe on Haight) in the kitchen, B-Side on the sound system and Caine playing Pearl Mesta, this place is gonna be hot.

Julie Ring's Heart and Soul, 1695 Polk, S.F., 673-7100. Open Mon-Sat 5 pm-midnight. Cafe Mars, 798 Brannan, S.F., 621-6277. Open Mon-Fri 11:30 am-1 am, Sat 5 pm-1 am.

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