The secret’s out on this Brookhaven favorite
There is something magical about the few miles of road just south of the Johnson Ferry/Ashford Dunwoody split in Brookhaven. Flanked on the west by towering pines, it’s a rare stretch of green inside the Perimeter. At dusk, staring out from our patio seat at Secreto, it feels like we’re in the North Georgia mountains. After months in quarantine, the indigo sky and gentle breezes are a balm.
Situated in the Brookleigh Marketplace, Secreto Southern Kitchen and Bar is hardly a secret to locals, and despite the obvious competition—its close proximity to both Pure Taqueria and Marlow’s Tavern—it’s perennially packed. The allure is not entirely evident from the unremarkable exterior. But inside, Secreto is warm and welcoming, the decor falling squarely into the Chip and Joanna Gaines’ world of modern farmhouse glam: white walls, reclaimed wood accents and barn doors (here made of iron and glass). The exposed ducts and concrete floor infuse the space with a touch of industrial cool, and the honey-mustard banquettes give the dining room a much-needed pop of color. The sensuous bar lit by citrine-colored drop lights makes up the northernmost space and runs adjacent to the patio.
Which is exactly where we were on a recent evening. As dusk crept in, strings of holiday lights popped on and gave the space a festive, backyard-picnic vibe. Our waiter cheered us with his joyful voice and smiling eyes as he set down our Grey Goose Cosmopolitans. The icy, rose-hued tonic, with its hints of vermouth and cranberry, was just what we needed to toast our first evening out after months at home.
We were, admittedly, confounded by the restaurant’s name: Secreto. Why? It sounds like an Italian or Portuguese word but is neither. I asked the waiter who told me it’s because the owner, Chef Boyd Rose, wanted to convey the idea that what’s on the menu is a bit of a secret. Intrigued, I vowed to investigate. The menu is almost entirely Southern, not at all Mediterranean. Which brings me to our first nibble of the night: the deviled eggs appetizer. I will confess that I generally do not eat eggs. But tonight, after one bite of the piped yolky goodness sprinkled with piquant red paprika, I was sold. And surprise, surprise—there’s a delicate hint of truffle salt, an addition that complements the eggs exquisitely.
We followed this with fried green tomatoes. A quartet of pimento cheese-dipped, crisp-fried tomato slices are stacked and topped with a dollop of rosy strawberry jalapeño jam. The crackling crust surrendered under my knife’s blade, and, as if on cue, the melty cheese oozed onto the plate. All components are masterfully executed; the strawberry jalapeño jam in particular is so good it deserves its own biscuit basket.
What makes a crab cake “Charleston-style”? As this was our most anticipated dish, we wanted to find out. We asked the waiter who went to check. Lump crab meat? Check. Easy on the breading? Check. Aptly seasoned? Sure. But the juicy, marine flavor we were craving was MIA. The saving grace was the gherkin-accented, creamy remoulade with its classic Low Country seasonings.
Secreto’s New York strip was our special, post-quarantine indulgence. Here, the cut is nicely marbled, juicy and grilled to specifications. The $45 price tag may be steep but not when you consider the killer sides. The bacon, jalapeño and white cheddar mac ‘n cheese is irresistible, the cheesy breadcrumbs and smoky nubs of bacon coiled around the cavatappi (corkscrew pasta) like a clingy, gorgeous lover. The requisite green is equally sublime: thin, snappy haricots verts sautéed with garlic and a dash of butter rendered perfectly al dente.
Our next evening began indoors, with a puckish waiter querying us about cocktails. We had a hankering for something similar to a margarita but a little more adventurous. What arrived was La Cultura, an innocuous looking peach-colored beverage replete with intriguing aromas and flavors. Smoky and vaguely petrol (but in a good way), the combination of Banhez mezcal, orgeat (almond-scented syrup) and tequila is an almost mystical experience, and it’s worth trying, with one caveat: It’s better with food.
Cue the red chile glazed “bang-bang” shrimp, the only deviation on the predominantly Southern menu. Four large shrimp fried up in a chile-glaze crust are set atop a mandoline-shaved cucumber and red onion salad in a miso sesame dressing. It deserves high praise in the appetizer department. I celebrated its success with another sip of La Cultura.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Secreto could survive if it only served Chef Boyd’s fried chicken and homemade carrot cake. Both are sublime and flawless. First, the fried chicken: pounded white meat, boneless, skinless, and coated with a vaguely KFC-reminiscent spice blend. Dredged and fried expertly, the meat’s so tender and juicy, it’ll leave you speechless. The creamy, smoked bacon jalapeño gravy has just a pinch of heat and lovingly complements the neighboring sides—buttermilk mashed potatoes and garlicky green beans.
And the carrot cake with cream cheese glaze? I would stake my life on the fact that you’ve never had one this good. Full of fresh walnut chunks, flecks of sweet carrot and perfumey autumn spices, we have the chef’s grandmother to thank for this prizewinner.
We never did get to chat up Rose and find out what he meant with his restaurant’s name. No matter. If keeping the secret behind Secreto’s origins means the promise of great Southern cuisine for the foreseeable future, we’re perfectly happy to keep mum.
SECRETO SOUTHERN KITCHEN AND BAR
3575 Durden Drive N.E., Suite 201,
Prices: Salads, soups, appetizers: $7-$20; entrees: $22-$35; desserts: $8-$9.
Recommended: Chef Boyd’s fried chicken, truffle deviled eggs, “bang bang” shrimp, fried green tomatoes with pimento cheese, smoked bacon jalapeño white cheddar mac ‘n’ cheese, garlic green beans, strawberry jalapeño jam.
Bottom Line: Both sophisticated and family-friendly, Secreto is Brookhaven’s go-to for impeccable Southern fare.
PHOTOS: Sara Hanna
Food, beauty and interiors writer at Simply Buckhead. Linguist, teacher, chef, parent.