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Published: Thursday, 10/19/2006

Restaurant review: Common Grill *****

Chelsea is a lovely town just outside Ann Arbor, with a main street that throbs with activity. Streams of traffic and pedestrians pass awning-shaded shops that sell everything from oil paintings to western wear. Looming over the thoroughfare are the storage silos of Chelsea's best-known employer, Jiffy Mix, a staple of American cupboards for more than a century.

This is Main Street USA at its most vibrant, and two places in particular add to the sense of excitement that permeates the town of 4,400. One is the Purple Rose Theater, a small playhouse with a big reputation, thanks to the creative comedies and dramas written, performed, or produced by its founder, film actor Jeff Daniels. The other is The Common Grill, which is anything but.

On two recent visits to the upscale restaurant, located about an hour from Toledo, the place resounded with the hubbub of diners engaged in high-decibel conversations at the crowded bar and surrounding tables, flanked by town murals on facing walls. The marvelous American bistro dishes turned out by owner-chef Craig Common and his kitchen crew seem incongruous amid the noisy, jostling atmosphere of the place.

But the creative preparation and quality of the fare can't be disputed. Dinner patrons indulge themselves with the likes of piping hot bouillabaisse, shrimp and lobster fettuccine, thick Angus steaks, and goat cheese-stuffed chicken breasts. For lunch, sandwiches range from burgers to spicy sirloin quesadillas, and specials include such pasta dishes as smoked chicken and linguine with grape tomatoes and peas - simple and swell.

The Grill came about through the efforts of Robert Daniels, Jeff's father, who talked Craig Common into opening a place in Chelsea 15 years ago.

For openers on a recent evening, we opted for chilled gazpacho ($4), a silky rendering of the cold tomato-cucumber soup spiked with garlic croutons; lively seafood chowder ($4) with clams, shrimp, scallops, and fish in a tomato-saffron broth, and a novelty, Parmesan portobello fries ($9) the mushroom sticks almost as crispy as real fries and served with red pepper aioli.

With the meals came warm homemade rolls and dandy salads, including one that pitted sweet Tuscan pears against earthy, blue-veined Gorgonzola in a bed of leaves. Then came the entrees, all worth writing home about. As befits a place where King Neptune rules the menu and the daily chalkboard specials, we chose dishes from the sea.

Spanish paella ($27) spilled over with a veritable school of shrimp, mussels, clams, salmon, halibut, and lobster mixed with chicken and spicy chorizo sausage amid the saffron rice. Other entrees included Chilean sea bass with steamed littleneck clams, pancetta, and green and white asparagus; pan-fried perch ($23) cooked in a hazelnut crust enveloping the moist, meaty fillets, and the piece de resistance, Parmesan-crusted Lake Superior whitefish ($24) with lobster, crimini mushrooms, radicchio, and orzo - over the top, to be sure, but worth every mouth-watering forkful.

For desserts, you can do no wrong with any of the $7 choices, including warm blackberry cobbler with vanilla bean ice cream.

To get there from Toledo, take U.S. 23 north to I-94 west. Get off at exit 162, turn right on Jackson Road/Old US 12, which takes you to Chelsea's South Main Street.

Contact Bill of Fare at fare@theblade.com



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