Dining Out

Meet the Owners of Kisser in Nashville

By: Erin Byers Murray

If you’ve visited a farmers market around Nashville over the past few years, chances are you’ve been tempted by the aromas coming from Leina Horii and Brian Lea’s pop-up concept, Kisser—their onigiri and yakitori always sell out. The two were using the pop up to test dishes for their forthcoming brick-and-mortar iteration of Kisser in Nashville’s Highland Yards. After much anticipation, the Japanese comfort food counter space opens March 24.

The two Californians met cooking together in L.A. at Trois Mec [now closed]—this was after Lea worked at Husk Charleston and later came to Nashville to open the Husk location here. Looking to leave L.A., the two landed back in Nashville, picking up jobs at The Catbird Seat (Horii) and Bastion (Lea and then Horii). Kisser has been years in the making with the couple popping up all over town, including at Patterson House, Urban Cowboy, with Sean Brock at Joyland, and more. 

While they prepared for the opening of their 800-square-foot, Japanese-Scandinavian-style space, we caught up with the two to learn all about their idea of Japanese comfort food.

Food from kisser nashville feat

Discover the Inspiration for Kisser in Nashville

How has the Kisser concept evolved?

Leina Horii: The restaurant we originally wanted to open (this was probably five years ago now) was more of a chef’s counter tasting menu idea. Almost fine dining, but we never got it off the ground. A couple years passed. There was the shutdown and everything, and we realized, at this point in our careers, we didn’t want to do that style of dining anymore. 

Chicken katsu sandwich from Kisser in Nashville

And, during the shutdown, like so many people, we went back to cooking sort of our home food or the food we grew up with, comfort food. I was making bread every day—like everyone, I went on the bread thing—but was making Japanese breads, and a lot of the food that I grew up eating because that was comfort to me. We realized, “you know what, this is the food we actually like.” We got away from fine dining and into more traditional Japanese comfort food. 

Brian Lea: I would say our iteration of Japanese comfort food is food that we never get tired of eating. So, we’ve always had a pretty sizable garden, and during the shutdown we had time to really dive into it. We’ve always grown a lot of Japanese varietals in our garden—we’ve brought in Japanese seeds for tomatoes, cucumbers, shiso—and so we were just building our meals around that. We came to realize this is something viable, people would really like this, and it doesn’t exist here. 

Describe what you’ll find on the menu—what is Japanese comfort food to you?

LH: Something we started doing at the farmers markets was onigiri, basically little seasoned, filled rice balls. As a kid, it was what my mom made for a picnic or a road trip. We wondered if people would like them…and they sold out in about an hour. That’ll definitely be a grab-and-go item. We’ve been doing Japanese sandwiches, basically what you’d find at a Japanese convenience store, just our versions of them—we bake our own milk bread. We’ll have a soba, or a seasonal noodle dish, since I love making fresh pasta noodles. Curry is another item we’ll focus on. 

BL: And then we’ll do a few bento boxes because it’ll be a counter-service restaurant, so we want to make food that travels well and that is also very, very satisfying. You gotta have those punchy Japanese flavors, too. You know, we’re not doing sushi or ramen—there’s so much more depth to Japanese food. We want to find a little niche, basically everything in between. 

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