As a young cook working her way up the ranks, chef Roxanne Spruance collected photos of bathroom tiles, color schemes, and lighting fixtures. She imagined a dining room that was clean, neutral, and inviting. “Some girls plan their wedding. I planned this restaurant,” Spruance tells the Voice. That restaurant? Kingsley.
Tucked away on Avenue B in the East Village, Kingsley is indeed an inviting restaurant. There are two small dining rooms seating around 25, a bar with a separate menu and serious signature cocktails, a private dining room, and a patio. The dining and bar menus are both whole animal- and market-driven, with seasonal changes. And the service is warm, but professionally on point.
“Everything has kind of formed itself from this initial vision of allowing guests to get amazing food and great service without having to get dressed up and go uptown,” Spruance explains. “There are so many mid-range to cheap eats in this city, but you go in and the servers kind of make you feel like you’re doing them a favor by being there. I hate that feeling.”
In a time when “market-driven” and “whole animal” can be viewed as more “on trend” than substantial, you only need to look at Spruance’s formal education to trust that she can put her plates where her ideals are. She received Bachelor of Science degrees in both Environmental Biology/Zoology and in Fisheries and Wildlife, and she worked at Paul Kahan’s Blackbird in Chicago, and Blue Hill at Stone Barns and WD-50 in New York.
At Kingsley, her education and experience come together in ingredient-driven dishes that equate to more than throwing “a poached egg in a bowl with some vegetables and calling it a day.”
“Where’s the crunch, where’s the acid? We look at all elements together,” she assures.
Her Celeriac Agnolotti, for example, is a pasta-less dish where roasted celery root is put through a deli slicer, then stuffed with sunflower puree and served over a dehydrated mesquite cake with seared foie gras, black pepper gastrique, and sunflower shoots. “It’s sweet, bright, fresh, and crunchy,” she explains.
While favorites like the charred octopus will probably never fully leave the menu, its composition changes with what’s available that season, and is currently served with eucalyptus, yogurt, plums, cucumber, sumac, rice wine, and shiso.
Cocktails flow with the seasons, too. In late summer, the Herbs de Provence Manhattan transformed into a Manhattan with pecan-washed bourbon and peach simple syrup. Such potent libations require snacks that can seriously absorb alcohol.
“The East Village is a great cocktail neighborhood where people are out late, but most places don’t really do good late food,” she says. “So to offer some snacks to people later in the evening that are still curated — and not just pizza — is important to us.” This is where the benefit of using whole animals comes in: Fresh lamb meat goes into tartare, pig skins into chicharones, and soon a few varieties of French paté will be available.
Breaking down whole animals is a technique that many chefs aspire to master, but it’s a process that is often difficult to make a reality — especially in a city where kitchens can be the size of closets and walk-in refrigerators aren’t big enough for people to walk into. But for Spruance, “the animals were non-negotiable, just like the farmer’s market is non-negotiable. We were going to make it work.”
Part of the necessity is purely pragmatic: When a whole animal comes in at three dollars a pound versus a rack or chop at thirty dollars, the difference between the two is gigantic.
“It’s a ton more labor…but it’s free, because it’s me!” she admits. “It’s about what you can get out of it, and where you can get the most value,” she summarizes. “For me, that’s doing whole animals. Say I had a super-tiny fridge: I’d bring something in and butcher it that day so that it fits in that fridge. There are no limitations — you just have to be a bit more creative about it.”
Creativity plays a part in her plating style, too, though she doesn’t plate with Instagram-obsessed diners in mind. “It’s a combination of what the dish is, how it speaks to me, and what plate it’s going on,” she explains. She’s a fan of negative space and round plates, often utilizing their curves. “It’s an organic process. It shouldn’t make your eye work. I think that’s part of how people identify with your dishes — they’re not having to figure out what the thing is.”
Spruance has always taken ownership in the restaurants that employed her and tries to instill the same in her staff. However, when she gives herself a moment to bathe in those bathroom tiles, the poured concrete bar, the color palette, and the ethos of her staff — she feels pride in a way she never has before. “Honestly, I try not to think about it all the time, but there is something to be said about sitting down at the end of the night in a space that is my name. It’s awesome.”