Veggie-rich buffets, Part 2: Keke under new management


Lunch at Keke: Spiraling counterclockwise from front: mapo tofu, vegetable tempura (sweet potato, carrot, shishito pepper and lotus root), fried gyoza, pork and vegetable stir-fry, senkiri shredded daikon radish, komatsuna greens with tofu, black hijiki seaweed, mackerel.

In a previous post titled “Veggie-rich buffets,” I wrote: “One of the most positive trends in Japan over the past decade has been the rise of the veggie-rich buffet restaurant. I first became aware of this category of establishment six or seven years ago when I had lunch at Keke, a buffet in the then brand-new Cocoon Shintoshin shopping mall in Saitama City. There were a few chicken or fish dishes, along with tons of vegetables, mostly fresh, steamed, stewed, pickled or sautéed. There was a salad bar as well, and several different kinds of rice: rice cooked with barley, rice cooked with black beans, multigrain rice, and even plain white rice. Much of this bounty was described as ‘organic.’”

But on my most recent visit to Keke, I found that things had changed.

Something felt different from the moment I picked up my plate. Keke customers used to arrange their food on thick wooden platters, but now the restaurant uses slightly more ordinary (but still attractive) ceramic plates. And at the drink bar, where there used to be an array of teas and fruit juices for customers to pour into a variety of rustic pottery mugs, there is now a conventional soft-drink dispenser where people are meant to fill up stingily tiny plastic cups.

On the buffet itself, the food was fine but its abundance and variety seemed diminished from my recollections of previous visits. But there were also a few new items, including sweet-and-sour pork in a dark, gloopy, tangy sauce.

The pork was a clue to what had happened. It turns out that in April of last year, Keke was sold by Nagatanien Co. to the Kiwa Corporation. You can read about the sale in Japanese here and here.

Nagatanien is best known for selling packaged ochazuke rice gruel mix (shown at right), furikake toppings to sprinkle over rice, and various seasonings. Kiwa Corporation owns numerous restaurant chains, and is perhaps best known for its Benitora Gyouzabou Chinese restaurants, which operate in free-standing form and inside shopping malls.

I like Benitora, and I like their gloopy sweet-and-sour pork with its big chunks of meat. But this heavy, sugary dish seemed out of place on the Keke buffet, which was previously characterized by an abundance of light and healthy organic vegetable dishes. Other dishes also seemed to have wandered in from a different menu, such as the mapo tofu and fried gyoza.

I have nothing against these dishes, but they aren’t part of the Keke I fell in love with. “Organic” goodness was once a major selling point, but this time I didn’t see that word used anywhere. The dessert bar was the final blow. It was dominated by a marshmallow chocolate fondue, which would never have been seen in the buffet’s light-and-healthy days. (But yes, I did eat some.)

As shown in the photo at the top of this entry, you can still put together a good meal at Keke, but it’s not what it used to be.

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