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Using peppers, chef incorporates wellness into cuisine at House of Better in Calistoga

What’s new at Dr. Wilkinson’s

The iconic Napa Valley spa resort was sold in 2019 and has since undergone a multi-million dollar, retro-chic renovation. Take a peek inside here.

It’s a sunny afternoon, and I’m sitting on a snazzy teal Adirondack chair on a cool green lawn, eating pie. It must be done, I tell myself, as I’m determined to be extra healthy and boost my immune system during this cautious time.

So if I have to eat pie, lots of pie from the new House of Better restaurant in Calistoga, I will power through. Specifically, it’s apple pie, laced with roasted green chiles tucked in a butter-based cheddar crust and topped with walnut streusel and clouds of crème fraîche ($6.50). The chiles are silky and a bit smoky against the crisp-tender apples. The recipe is just slightly sweet, the way I prefer desserts. And the dish is nearly a superfood, promises Chef Trevor Logan. It’s part of his “wellness meets happiness” theme for his New Mexico-style eatery that debuted in May in Dr. Wilkinson’s Backyard Resort & Mineral Springs downtown.

“Green chiles are naturally good for you, with more vitamin C than citrus fruit,” Logan said, noting that one medium-size Hatch green chile has as much vitamin C as six oranges. The chiles are also rich in dietary fiber, important for a healthy digestive system, and are high in iron, potassium and antioxidants. Many nutritionists also credit the peppers with helping to lower blood cholesterol, and Logan reminded us that chiles can create an “endorphin blast,” too, similar to the “high” we get when we exercise.

Logan has long been impressed with the power of peppers. He ran his Green Chile Kitchen in San Francisco for 14 years before closing the restaurant in September of 2019. He has operated his Chile Pies Baking Co. and ice cream store in Guerneville for seven years now and more recently started tinkering with his longtime classic southwestern recipes.

“I have been interested in nutrition and holistic wellness since graduating from the Bauman Holistic Nutrition Consultant Program four years ago,” he said. “I have always been very passionate about New Mexican cuisine and the traditional dishes that come from the Southwest, so now incorporating healthier ingredients and options into our menu seems like a natural progression.”

Which is how I now have come to be sipping adaptogenic tea ($5) alongside my curative pie. Adaptogens are herbs and roots that have been used for centuries in Chinese and Ayurvedic healing traditions. In this case, the tea comes from Sporgy mushroom specialist of Windsor, and I’ve chosen the “sun/energy” flavor of apricot, ginger, apple, stinging nettle, cordyceps mushrooms (to treat fatigue, sickness and kidney disease) and maitakes (for vitamin D and to regulate blood sugar and pressure).

OK, the tea does smell like funky feet at first, but it quickly kicks in with delightful fruit and peppery spice. I swear I can feel its magic coursing through my veins (not really, but it is delicious).

Dr. Wilkinson’s — or “Doc’s,” as the locals call it — underwent an extensive renovation last year and recently reemerged with a stylish but cheeky salute to its 1952 founding by the pioneering wellness practitioner John “Doc” Wilkinson. Along with its original neon sign, a tricked-out 1952 Buick Special parked at the curb and burbling mud baths and natural spring mineral water pools, the intimate property beckons with fun touches like a “Pie Hole” automat vending machine painted in retro teal, yellow and red and selling pie by the slice.

At House of Better, we order at the counter in a building made from two converted shipping containers. Servers deliver food and drink to the patio, lawn or handful of inside dining tables, and the food is Logan’s top-notch cooking. A large fire-fueled chile roasting machine sits on the lawn and will spin during chile harvest season September through November. Otherwise, the fruits grown in the Hatch Valley of southern New Mexico are roasted there and supplied frozen.

I recommend starting with a trio of “protein-rich plant power” dips ($16), presented on a polished wood plank. There’s chunky fire-roasted green chile, of course, mixed with Napa’s Rancho Gordo creamy white Alubia Blanca pureed beans and scattered in piñon nuts for a warm, subtly spicy dish. There are herbed creamy hemp hearts — reminding me of thin tahini — spiked with preserved lemon, chives and nutritional yeast. Shredded carrot gets turned into a thick hummus, seasoned with harissa, tahini, cumin and dukkah, all for scooping with tortilla chips and ice-cold jicama, celery and carrot sticks.

Green chile stew is a signature, stocked with tomatoes and pork, chicken or veggies ($8 cup, $14 bowl). When House of Better first opened, Logan experimented with an “immunity broth” by including mushrooms and booster ingredients like seaweed to add more nutrients.

What’s new at Dr. Wilkinson’s

The iconic Napa Valley spa resort was sold in 2019 and has since undergone a multi-million dollar, retro-chic renovation. Take a peek inside here.

“Ultimately, we decided to keep the traditional recipe we’ve been using for over 15 years,” he said. And I’m happy with that — this soothing stuff is excellent, robust with pure chile-ness and best with pork for that luscious extra layer of flavor and touch of fat. It needs nothing other than the warm corn tortillas and crema it’s served with.

Seaweed finds a tasty home in the Herb & Maitake salad, alongside Little Gem lettuce, sauteed mushrooms, edamame, pickled zucchini, apples, fresh herbs, green onion, housemade multi-seed crisps and sesame vinaigrette ($18). The dish brings together so many textures and flavors that vegan dining feels indulgent.

For another excellent salad, Little Gems and smoked salmon are tossed with avocado, fennel, caper berries, Persian cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, salty umeboshi furikake, fresh herbs, seed crisps and lovely green chile buttermilk dressing ($22). It has become my weekend brunch favorite, reminding me of a lox and everything bagel platter without the carbohydrate guilt, and it’s delightful with a pineapple-lemon mimosa sparked with mint and cayenne ($12).

Not everything is bent to wellness here, so even those who crave comfort food will feel at home. You can nibble on a booster bowl of sauteed kale, red quinoa, Anasazi beans, calabacitas, red or green chile, avocado and pickled onion ($18), but you also can tackle a hefty burger dressed in aged cheddar, grilled onion, roasted green chile, pickled onion and chipotle aioli with french fries ($20).

I go for the middle ground on one visit, digging into a big plate of New Mexican flat enchiladas ($20). The corn tortillas are stuffed with shredded chicken, veggies or marinated and slow-roasted red Chimayo chile pork carne adovada, plus Monterey jack cheese and chiles under a mantle of rustic red and green salsas. I add a sunny side up egg for runny yolk goodness that really makes the dish delectable ($3).

The plate includes a bowl of creamy whole Anasazi beans tumbled with pico de gallo, dollops of crema and a chopped romaine salad with chile vinaigrette. I figure the chicken model is healthy enough, since there’s not much cheese in the mix and little if any salt that I can taste (Logan later confirmed that he focuses on pure flavors, noting that, “We don’t do much to the peppers when making our green chile stew and sauce; they are just seasoned and cooked to keep their flavor”).

As the pandemic wanes and sufficient restaurant staffing hopefully returns, the chef plans to expand. Currently the eatery serves weekend brunch and all-day lunch, plus dinner Thursday through Monday. Watch for those hours to grow into lunch and dinner daily.

And we can expect a longer menu, with more custom, labor-intensive goodies like homemade blue corn tortillas and more herbal tonics like the already popular shrubs. We’re also anticipating more alcohol-free cocktails crafted with botanicals and adaptogens alongside spirit “remedies” such as refreshing green chile lemonade fashioned of housemade lemonade, wine-based vodka, chiles, lemon, cayenne and sparkling water ($10).

In the meantime, I’ll be feeding my wellness resolution by eating more pie, parked on the dog-friendly lawn with my puppy. Besides green chile apple, healthy pies I need to commit to include seasonal favorites like apricot cherry, strawberry rhubarb, white nectarine raspberry, country peach blueberry, lemon buttermilk and mixed berry.

It’ll be tough work, I know. But as I’m sure “Doc” Wilkinson would agree, health is the most important thing.

Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at carey@careysweet.com.

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