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Susan Kang Sunderland

Peter Kim Kicks Off A New Steak House

The former Alabama kicker credits legendary coach Bear Bryant for life lessons that have served him well as he built a highly successful restaurant empire, including Yummy Korean BBQ. Now he’s moving into fine dining with The Signature Prime Steak & Seafood atop the Ala Moana Hotel

When Peter Kim brought wife Jennifer to the 36th floor of Ala Moana Hotel to look at leasable restaurant space, she exclaimed, “Wow, what a signature view!”

That was the start of something big. The landmark restaurant location, formerly occupied by Aaron’s and before that Nicholas Nickolas, was closed for four years. After signing a long-term lease and modernizing the interior, Kim has brought the 8,150-square-foot space to life as The Signature Prime Steak & Seafood restaurant.

The lights are back on, the spectacular vista is turning heads and the sound of music and happy diners has returned. Only this time, the man who brought Yummy’s Korean BBQ to the masses is kicking it up a notch.

This is Kim’s first full-service restaurant, complete with white table cloths, crystal chandeliers, marble flooring, a white baby grand piano on a lit pedestal and a panoramic million-dollar view.

“But ambiance alone can’t sustain a business,” he says. “There has to be good food, great service and many other details in play.”

Spoken like a true connoisseur who knows the game of survival in the toughest business in town. The casualty rate for new restaurants, large and small, is well-known.

Full-service restaurants suffered almost three times the amount of market decline last year, according to trade research. The hardest hit in the fine-dining segment are steak and seafood establishments.

While Kim is mindful of that trend, he has never backed away from a delicious challenge. It just whets his appetite for an extra helping of gumption.

Where does his optimism and sense of confidence come from?

“I do a lot of things by instinct,” he says.

Considering his success with family-owned Yummy’s Korean BBQ and nine other food-service concepts, he could bottle that secret sauce to profitability. It’s hot.

On the occasion of The Signature’s grand opening, we want to trace Kim’s path from takeout meals at under $10 a plate to the rarified realm of fine dining where the average check is $75. “With a glass of wine,” adds Signature general manager Jacque Viloria.

Like prime beef, there is an aging process to bringing out the best in a product. So time will tell whether Kim’s latest venture is palatable.

Let’s take his story course by course.

The Starter

Kim was born in Seoul, Korea, the youngest of seven children. The Kims welcomed a son after having six daughters. Seeking education and opportunities for the children, the family moved to Hawaii when Peter was 15.

Kim attended Washington Intermediate, then Kaiser High School, where soccer coaches noticed his strong kicking skill.

That fearless style and strong leg got Kim football scholarships at the University of Hawaii, where he played for coach Dick Tomey, and at the University of Alabama, where he excelled under the guidance of legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant, winningest coach in college football.

“Going to Alabama was the best decision I ever made,” Kim states.

The Crimson Tide didn’t win any of its 12 national championships in the three years that Kim was at Tuscaloosa, but Kim did learn the fine points of the English language – and a few other things.

“Coach Bryant gave us life lessons through sports,” he says. “He was a great motivator. He emphasized giving 110 percent no matter what you do. That’s why we had success as a team.”

Exceeding expectations became Kim’s mantra for life.

While awaiting security clearance to become a special agent with the Treasury Department, he made a six-month commitment to help his family start a Korean barbecue business. Korean food had become popular, but Kim noticed there was no prototype operation and consistent branding.

Yummy’s Korean BBQ, a plate lunch concept with side dish choices, was launched in 1986 at Koko Marina Center in Hawaii Kai. His special agent career went on the back burner.

“Back then, we said we’d be happy if we made $700 a day,” he recalls. “We did $3,000 a day from the get-go.”

A second operation in Pearl City and a third at Ala Moana Center’s food court followed. Today, there are eight Yummy’s locations, with its distinctive orange signature logo and tantalizing side dishes, including spicy kimchi and seaweed.

Given opportunities to diversify to Italian, Chinese and American cuisine concepts, Kim applied his determined Crimson Tide spirit to new ventures. The Yummy’s Restaurant Group now includes Mama’s Spaghetti House, ChowMein Express, Lahaina Chicken Company, Cheeseburger Factory and the Steak & Fish Company. His sisters head many of the operations.

Five years ago, Kim purchased quaint Liliha Bakery, whose one-of-a-kind cocoa puffs are trademark treats. There are plans to take the concept to more locations, including the Neighbor Islands. How sweet it is.

Main Dish

Signature welcomed its first customers May 31, marking a soft opening during the shakedown period. General manager Viloria, formerly with Del Frisco Double Eagle Steak House in Las Vegas, returns to the Islands after 13 years away from home. After hiring 75 employees, putting everyone through service training, tweaking the menu and developing signature beverages, she’s ready to fill the 275-seat room with customers.

Honolulu’s highest dining spot at 36 floors atop Ala Moana Hotel, the elegant room is softly lit and accented by warm wall coverings, laminated glass paneling from Korea, contemporary artwork and tropical floral arrangements.

Dining tables are arranged along floor-to-ceiling glass windows, or one can choose the intimacy of booths that face out to scenic views of Waikiki, the top of Diamond Head and neighboring Makiki-Manoa.

There are three private dining rooms, seating eight to 40 diners and offering ocean or mountain views. A bar with 15 padded stools is a popular pau-hana destination for the town’s deal-makers. On the day we are there, we spot a commercial real estate titan and a media mogul. Five seats around the piano are people magnets as well.

Where establishments might boast one or two specialty cocktails, The Signature proudly pours 11, including a tangy Bloody Mary called BZT that features Zing Zang mix infused with sriracha and wasabi and Grey Goose vodka, served up or on the rocks with a slice of crisp bacon. It’s a meal in itself.

But executive chef Ken MacKenzie’s steak and seafood selections are the real barometer of guest satisfaction.

The young chef, formerly at Ryan’s Grill in Ward Centre, prepares USDA prime cuts of dry-aged beef in a high-heat commercial broiler. From 8-ounce prime filet mignon ($44.95) to 24-ounce prime porterhouse ($57.95), each cut of meat is prepared to perfection.

Kim’s favorite is prime rib eye, available in 16-ounce boneless ($47.95) and 22-ounce bone-in ($55.95). Unlike other steak houses, all entrees come with tasty truffle mashed potatoes.

Side dishes also are available. “We offer value, and want to put our quality dining experience into the reach of the mainstream market,” Kim says.

To do so with breathtaking views from the top of the town places The Signature in a class of its own.

While Kim considers himself a discerning steak house diner, having patronized many in his travels, he offers fine seafood at his restaurant too. He is especially fond of the miso butterfish ($38.95), declaring, “We have the best butterfish in the state.”

For presentation and tableside theatrics, one can’t beat The Signature’s seafood tower for two ($49.95). A huge silver chalice is filled with crushed ice, topped by Maine lobster, jumbo shrimp, New England sea scallops and oysters on the half shell.

Combine this ambrosia with a rosy sunset or moonlit ocean view, and even Kim begins to look like cupid. Affordable wines also are part of the attraction.

Dessert

Vanilla & Chocolate Bread Pudding seems the front-runner on The Signature dessert choices. It’s focaccia bread and fudge brownie married with Frangelica crème anglaise ($9). The Signature dessert beverage is an adult Vanilla Shake; we won’t say more.

Be on the lookout for grand opening festivities at The Signature, including a Fourth of July party and the launch of happy hours with thirst-quenching discounts.

There’s plenty to celebrate, not the least of which is the valiant commitment of a local businessman to preserve places and traditions dear to kamaaina. Kim saved Liliha Bakery and turned on the lights at a landmark restaurant space that was shuttered for years. He didn’t want the local people and visitors to lose these treasures and their memories.

There’s a simple way to say thank you. Check out his new restaurant and raise a glass to continued success. It’s all yummy.

The Signature Prime Steak & Seafood, 410 Atkinson Drive, express elevator to 36th floor. www.signatureprimesteak.com Phone: 949-3636.

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