“Junior” Ranjit left an executive’s job with technology giant Apple Inc. two decades ago to cook. “When I’m in the kitchen,” he said, “it can take me to a different world.”
Ranjit became a chef and restaurateur.
Today, he owns and operates the Elephant Lounge restaurant on Shaw Avenue. It specializes in Indian cuisine but also features Italian pastas and American comfort food like meat loaf.
Ranjit wants to introduce the sauces, spices and specialties of India to people who have limited experience with the food of the subcontinent. He was born in India and grew up in Yuba City.
“For people who think Indian food is just curry, come see me,” Ranjit said with a smile.
The menu at the Elephant Lounge — which opened in July 2014 — offers curry and 10 other sauces. They are his original recipes.
When customers don’t know which sauce to order, Ranjit asks a simple but intriguing question: “How’s your palate?”
He wants to know how much “kick” they want.
His butter sauce — a mild tomato sauce made with a touch of butter — is easy on the palate. So is his sweet mango sauce.
But if the palate craves hot and spicy, Ranjit serves up his curry, with its house spices and peppercorn. His eight other sauces are basil cream, tikka masala, pomegranate marsala, korma, vindaloo, chili, saag and kadhai.
Ranjit believes the diversity of his menu sets the Elephant Lounge apart, and that diversity extends to the sauces.
For example, he begins the basil cream by wrapping garlic with basil and baking it. That reflects Thai cuisine. Then he chops the garlic with tomatoes and flambés the combination with sherry before adding a cream reduction. The sherry and cream are touches of French cuisine.
Customers choose a meat (beef, chicken, goat or lamb) or fish, scallops or veggies to go with a sauce. Prices range from $10 to $14. The meat and fish are cooked in a tandoori — the traditional clay oven of Indian cuisine.
Another popular item is a rice dish called biryani. It’s made with basmati, a long aromatic rice grown on the Indian subcontinent, and layered with customers’ choice of meat (chicken, goat or lamb), prawns or vegetables. Prices range from $9 to $14.
Non-Indian entrees include, but aren’t limited to, chicken cordon bleu, wood-fired chicken and grilled salmon, as well as the meat loaf. Prices range from $12.95 for meat loaf to $15.95 for the salmon.
Italian selections range from spaghetti and meatballs ($12.95) to chicken fettuccine ($16.50).
Ranjit’s education in food began after he graduated from San Jose State University with a degree in business and went to work for Apple. In the 1990s, he visited India and connected with a family friend who is a chef.
The friend showed Ranjit that the Indian food he ate at home and in college could not compare to a more complex cuisine of finer Indian food.
Ranjit decided to switch careers, a move that horrified his mother. “She almost had a heart attack,” he said.
Ranjit returned to the Bay Area, where he took low-level restaurant jobs to learn all aspects of the business before opening the first of several restaurants.
He eventually owned three at one time, plus a high-end catering business.
The pace was grueling. When he came to Clovis, he was looking for a better work-life balance, and he found it.
But that doesn’t mean he’s lowered his standards or lost his vision. Ranjit offers special seatings at the Elephant Lounge for a minimum of 10 guests. He personally prepares Indian dishes not on the menu — basing the number of courses on how much customers want to pay.
The minimum per plate is $25, which buys an appetizer, entree and dessert. Wild prawns are one example of an entree. Ranjit uses prawns that have never been frozen and cooks them in a masala sauce made with onion, ginger, garlic and 13 different spices. He serves the prawns with organic cucumbers.
“There should be a way when a customer doesn’t know a cuisine for someone to create a memory for that person,” Ranjit said. “My primary focus is to give them that experience.”
He is slowly building that part of his business. “I know with time there will be more people looking for this kind of dining,” Ranjit said.
The Elephant Lounge already has attracted positive attention. The Fresno chapter of the California Restaurant Association named it “Best Indian Restaurant” for 2014.
Albert and Gabriella Eileen Figueroa of Coarsegold are regular customers.
“When Junior cooks, you can feel the love on the food. It’s phenomenal,” Albert Figueroa said. “He followed his passion and his heart, and his heart is food.”
The Elephant Lounge is at 80 W. Shaw Ave. between Villa and Minnewawa avenues. The telephone number is (559) 323-1300. Hours are daily 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. There is live music two evenings a week — Thursday (country western) and Sunday (mix of bands). The restaurant’s website is elephantlounge.com and it’s on Facebook.