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At family-run Clifford's, good meals and memories go together

| Wednesday, April 25, 2012, 8:53 p.m.

Clifford's Restaurant in rural Evans City is not the kind of place where you can just walk in and expect to be seated.

Diners familiar with the upscale and intimate restaurant, famous for its homemade buns and rolls, know they need to make reservations well in advance of the date they desire.

Executive chef Jesse Enslen, who owns Clifford's with his Swiss-born wife, Nicole, says it usually takes four to six weeks to snare a coveted weekend reservation.

"We're already filled for New Year's Eve, and for Valentine's Day 2011," says Enslen, 44.

Enslen, whose identical twin, John, works alongside him as a prep cook, believes the reason for their success is simple: a passion for good food, and treating customers like family. His late father, Clifford, and mother, Valerie, worked as caterers while the boys grew up on the 80-acre farm where the restaurant sits, high atop a hill with breathtaking views of the surrounding pristine farmland.

"It was always my father's dream to have a restaurant, and when he retired, we built this," Enslen says. "It took us two years, and we opened in October 1993. My father died in 1999, and if he would've only known how well we've been received, he would be so proud. This is our way of keeping our father's legacy and memory alive."

Modeled after a French country house, Clifford's offers just 42 seats in the cozy dining room. White linen tablecloths grace the dark wooden tables and chairs, and old family photographs line the walls. A beautiful stone fireplace, built by Clifford Enslen, is the focal point of the attractive room.

"We are going to add a couple of private dining rooms in an expansion either by the end of this year, or in the spring," Enslen says.

The Enslen twins have been inseparable since birth. They graduated from Butler High School in 1984, and each earned a master's in business administration from Duquesne University. Both brothers live on the family farm. Jesse, his wife, and their two children live upstairs from the restaurant while John, who's single, lives next door.

"We're like part of a machine -- we've always been together," says Jesse Enslen. "We also have an older brother, Clifford Jr., who is a school psychologist in Florida."

Their mother, Valerie Enslen, lives on the farm, too, and serves as hostess. Nicole, whose Swiss father retired as a baker, is the server.

"My father-in-law, Jean, is a Swiss artisanal baker who taught me so much about baking," he says. "I bake all of my own bread for the restaurant throughout the evening. I'm the only one cooking, and that surprises a lot of people, but I love it. Everything is made to order, and we make all of our own dressings, sauces and gnocchi."

Clifford's has a set menu that never changes, as well as an extensive menu of daily specials, which Nicole recites to diners verbally. The never-changing entrees include chicken piccata, chicken Romano, baked Russian cod, pork loin, pork chops, boneless duck breast and filet mignon. Daily features -- 18 to 20 -- are dependent on the availability of local produce and imported seafood. All entrees are served with garden salads, fresh vegetables, potatoes and Enslen's famous rolls.

"I use New Zealand lamb, and our meats are hand-cut at a farm in Zelienople," Enslen says. "We get our seafood flown in twice a week from Honolulu Fish Company. Our produce comes from Spring Valley Gardens in West Sunbury, which is an organic farm."

Enslen is quick to point out that he uses only seasonal ingredients in the dishes that come from family recipes, as well as his own creations. While he never went to culinary school and is self-taught, Enslen learned how to cook from his catering parents, as well as from his travels overseas.

"I'm always thinking about what to make the next day," he says with a smile. "Cooking is therapeutic for me, and it gives so many people pleasure. I'm totally comfortable and competent doing this -- it's not stressful."

Owning a restaurant is not about making money, according to Enslen. In his opinion, it's about making people happy and giving them memories they'll never forget.

"You don't become a millionaire in this business," he says. "You have to like what you do. When you do something from your heart, it flows back to you. If you treat people well, they'll treat you equally well. It has been pleasurable, and we've been so blessed."

Clifford's House Buns

Chef-owner Jesse Enslen is sharing his famous bun recipe. He says Clifford's has made more than 1.1 million buns in the 17 years that it has been open, and he has given out his recipe at least 100 times to diners clamoring to make the melt-in-your-mouth buns at home.

"With the holidays just around the corner, what is one of the first things families think of?" he asks. "Getting together and sharing good food! One of the warmest attempts to start the celebration is through bread. This recipe is so easy to do."

• 4 cups flour, divided

• 3/4 tablespoon salt, plus more for sprinkling over buns, optional

• 1/4 cup sugar

• 1 tablespoon instant yeast

• 1 1/2 cups lukewarm milk (can be whole, 1 percent, 2 percent or even skim)

• 1 whole egg

• 2 tablespoons ( 1/4 stick) softened butter, plus more for brushing the buns

• Vegetable cooking spray

In a mixing bowl, combine 2 cups flour with 3/4 tablespoon salt, the sugar and yeast. Add the milk, egg and butter.

Using a hand mixer, beat all the ingredients at low speed for 1 minute.

Stir in 1 1/2 more cups flour, then finish with enough of the remaining flour (see Photo 1) so the dough is not too dry or too wet.

Knead by hand for 1 to 2 minutes (Photo 2), then coat the top of the dough with cooking spray and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled, for about 30 minutes. Punch the dough down and cut it in half. Elongate the dough and cut into 10 to 12 pieces (Photo 3) and tie into knots or twists (Photo 4) . Place on a baking sheet that has been coated with cooking spray, and brush each bun with melted butter (Photo 5) . Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until almost doubled in size.

Arrange a rack at the center position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Uncover the baking sheet and sprinkle buns with salt, if desired. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on racks.

For variations, add some finely chopped apples, or raisins or fresh herbs.

Makes 24 buns.

Additional Information:

Clifford's Restaurant

Cuisine: American with European influences

Hours: 4-9 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 3-8 p.m. Sundays

Entree price range: $22.95-$70.95

Notes: Major credit cards accepted. Handicapped accessible. BYOB with no corkage fee. Reservations required.

Address: 514 Upper Harmony Road, Evans City

Details: 724-789-9115 or website

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