From campus to the convention center, new executive chefs are courting culinary connoisseurs

My personal feeling about birthdays is that you might as well consider the alternative and throw yourself a big ol' party. The Red House Lounge (1917 Manor Rd., 391-1501) is just the place to do it. More than 50 friends joined me there for my annual potluck birthday bash in mid-July, and we found the venue delightful. Joel Mozer­sky's hip, retro Western decor in the homey old cottage offers plenty of comfortable furniture for lounging, both inside and out, plus a well-stocked bar and a friendly, attentive waitstaff. We noshed on an astounding array of party foods created by my guests (two kinds of fried chicken, two flavors of homemade ice cream, Tipsy Watermelon Salad, a fresh berry crostata, and on and on), as well as a steady supply of excellent thin-crust pizzas from the Stortini kitchen, just across the patio. All that and presents, too! What more could a gal ask for? Owner Carlos Rivero and his gracious team made us feel right at home. Now I understand how this place became a favorite neighborhood hangout so quickly... All kinds of interesting things are happening in the local hotel business this summer. When chef Josh Watkins left the Driskill Grill, it was announced that he would be working with a New York outfit opening an upscale restaurant on the ground floor of one of the new buildings Downtown. That turned out to be a temporary consulting job, and the accomplished young man soon moved on to another post. Watkins is now the executive chef at the brand new UT AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center, at the southern edge of the UT campus on MLK Boulevard. According to Watkins, the conference center has seven food-service outlets, including a fine-dining restaurant, a sports bar, casual eateries, plus banquet and conference dining facilities. Watkins' executive sous chef is Egil Valen­tin, formerly of the Texas Culinary Academy. Look for the new conference center to be open in time for football season... Finn & Porter, the fine-dining restaurant in the Hilton Austin (500 E. Fourth), has a new executive chef and restaurant manager. Chef Jeffrey Cummins and general manager John Maroon are both well-traveled culinary-school graduates who also have certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers. That is good news for locals and travelers looking for a quality meal of steaks, seafood, or sushi with the perfect wine pairing... In the fine old community tradition that made the Heritage Society's 1886 Chocolate Cake one of the most popular desserts at the 1886 Cafe & Bakery, the Driskill is searching for a signature pie to add to the cafe's dessert menu for the coming year. The pie recipe contest is open to any nonfood professional who is 18 years or older, and culinary students are encouraged to enter. A panel of judges will choose the winner from finalists featured at A Taste of the Driskill event Aug. 30. The winner will receive a $500 Driskill gift certificate and other prizes. The deadline for submitting original recipes is Aug. 15. Application forms and contest guidelines are online at Euphoric readers wrote in about the reopening of the Athenian Grill (600 Congress, 474-7775) at the corner of Sixth and Congress (entrance on the Sixth Street side). The owners and menu remain the same, but the new space has a full bar and offers some outside dining. Down­town­ers are so happy the Athenian's back that the lunchtime line stretches out the front door. Opa!

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